Tag Archives: habits

Observations from Marie Kondo about the Life-Changing Magic of Creating Good Habits.

Interview: Marie Kondo.

It’s hard to exaggerate the influence that Marie Kondo has wrought with her blockbuster books The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy. The latter book takes its name, of course, from the question she urges us to ask ourselves, “Does this possession spark joy?”

Her ideas about how to create order and fight clutter have helped countless people to give themselves more energy and peace. (You might ask, “How does something paradoxically give you more energy and give you more peace?” and I would say, “That is exactly the effect of clutter-clearing.“)

The New York Times called her “perhaps the world’s only decluttering celebrity.” Absolutely!

Even I don’t agree with everything that Marie Kondo prescribes (as I write about here), I’m a huge fan of her work. It’s practical, thought-provoking, and often surprising. For most of us, outer order contributes to inner calm, and her “KonMari method” resonates with many, many people.

One thing I love is that alongside detailed instructions for how to fold a t-shirt, Marie Kondo makes observations like this: “Tidying is the act of confronting yourself; cleaning is the act of confronting nature.” Profound.

In my books The Happiness Project and Happier at Home (can’t resist mentioning–both bestsellers), I write a lot about the role of possessions in building a happy life. It’s a fascinating area.

I was thrilled to get the chance to ask Marie Kondo questions about happiness and good habits.

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

In terms of tidying, I’m definitely an Upholder. I stay tidy because I feel that the effects ground me and allow my home to spark joy for my family and me.  However, I’m not sure if I qualify as an Upholder in other aspects, as I’ll procrastinate submitting written work or sometimes show up late to get-togethers with friends or colleagues!

Perhaps this makes me a Questioner, as I’ll only do things if, when I ask myself: “Does it spark joy?” and the answer is “yes.” My very profession is centered on encouraging others to ask themselves: “Does it spark joy?” This must qualify me as a Questioner! [Yes, that sounds Questioner to me.]

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits?

I usually go to bed early and wake up early with my kids, who are 18 and 5 months old. However, because I travel frequently for work, I’ll sometimes get jet-lagged. This can disrupt my sleep pattern for a couple of days after! When this happens, I get a little anxious that I am getting behind on work or missing out on time spent with my daughters while I try to catch up on rest.

Simply having children can interfere with healthy habits!  For instance, before bed, I usually like to stretch and release any tension that may have developed over the course of the day. However, if one of my daughters cries or calls out for me, I’ll tend to them and, by the time they’re calmed down, I’m tempted to pass on stretching and head straight to bed.

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.?

When I was 15, I would continually tidy my room, only to have it become cluttered again shortly after.  This cycle contributed to so much stress that one day, I fainted. This breaking point made me realize that I was approaching tidying the wrong way.  Instead of focusing on discarding things and approaching tidying as the removal of negativity, I realized that I needed to focus on finding and keeping things that spark joy.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

For daily life, I try to keep to routines, but for work, I prefer variety. For example, I get new ideas by traveling and exposing myself to other countries’ cultures. I enjoy giving talks in a variety of locations, because it allows me to interact with different people and learn from their diverse perspectives.

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

My grandmother taught me the importance of tidying up even those places you don’t openly see, such as the insides of drawers and bureaus.  She recognized the intrinsic beauty in belongings and took pride in their presentation in her home.  When she dressed and accessorized, she applied the same philosophy to her personal appearance – everything mattered.  I developed my initial respect for my belongings as a result of her influence.

Connect with Marie Kondo here:

“I’ve Always Been Obsessed with Questions, and with Asking the Right Question.”

Interview: Jim Ryan (or should I say James E. Ryan?).

I’ve been friends with Jim for a long, long time. It’s interesting, as you get older, to see how people appear and re-appear during your life. It’s reassuring to realize that even if you don’t see someone for years, when your paths cross, you still have that same deep friendship to rely on.

We once hung out in the Silliman courtyard at Yale — now Jim is the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and he’s also a very distinguished lawyer.

I was very excited to read Jim’s new book. It’s already a bestseller, which is not surprising, given that it was based on a wildly popular commencement speech he gave that went viral. (You can watch an excerpt here.) Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions is a very engaging, thought-provoking book about the five essential questions that can help us build a happy, productive life.

Spoiler alert — the five questions are:

  • Wait, what?
  • I wonder if . . .
  • Couldn’t we at least?
  • How can I help?
  • What truly matters?
  • (plus there’s a bonus question)

 

As you can tell from the description of the speech and the book, Jim is a very wise person — which is an odd thing to say about someone, perhaps, but it’s true.

In fact, if you want to hear me tell the story of how Jim gave me some very wise advice when I was applying for my clerkship with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, listen here. Jim probably doesn’t even remember that conversation! Which was so helpful to me, and which I’ve remembered so many times.

If you’d like to watch Jim’s terrific interview on CBS This Morning, it’s here.

So I couldn’t wait to hear what Jim would say about happiness and habits.

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

Jim: Running. I used to hate running when I was younger. I played a lot of team sports, and we only ran to warm up or if we were being punished. Over time, though, I grew to love running and about eight years ago started training for marathons with my wife, Katie.  We will be running our seventh consecutive Boston Marathon this April.

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

You have to focus on what you will gain from the habit and not focus solely on what you might have to give up.

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

Absolutely.  The single worst is checking email more than I need to or should.  I know it’s a distraction, but I have a hard time breaking the habit.

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

I would say the ones for both health, productivity and creativity, and in some ways they are connected.  I mentioned running earlier.  This habit is related to health, for sure, but it also keeps me productive and creative—I find I think most clearly while on a long run.  The idea for my commencement speech about questions, which became the basis for my book, came to me while running.  I also carve out time a few mornings each week for writing, which is easiest for me to do first thing in the morning.

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

I started eating much healthier about 8 or 9 years ago. I stopped drinking a coke every day, and I started eating a lot more salad, including at breakfast.

I committed to trying it for a month, and it made me feel much better, so it became pretty easy to adopt.

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

I am definitely a Questioner—as you can probably tell from my book! {Yes, it’s so obvious that Jim is a Questioner — in fact, his whole book is designed around questions! I love seeing the Tendencies play out like that.]

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

Travel, for sure. I find travel for work disruptive of a lot of good habits, including eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising. I have yet to figure out good travel 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.?

Yes!  I read Raymond Carver’s haunting short story, “A Small, Good Thing” [in the collection Cathedral] which is about a baker who harasses parents who ordered a birthday cake for their son but never picked it up or paid for it—because the son, unbeknownst to the baker, was hit by a car and died after the cake was ordered.  It made me break a bad habit of assuming I knew enough about other people to make judgments about them and their performance across a lot of contexts.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace them, but it’s an ongoing process, for sure.  I’m not yet a creature of habit, for better and for worse.

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

My grandfather. Whenever we visited him, we participated in his morning routines—of going into town to get the paper, check the mail, etc. I loved the regularity of it, and I admired how his following this routine or habit seemed to give him both a sense of calm and a sense of purpose.

So what inspired the speech that became the basis for the book?

I have always been obsessed with questions, and with asking the right question.  I’ve always thought of questions like keys—just like using the right key, if you ask the right question, you can unlock all sorts of mysteries about yourself and others.  The five essential questions I described in my speech and in Wait, What? are, to me, like five crucial keys on a key ring.  You will need other questions from time to time, but you never want to be without these five. In fact, asking these five questions of myself and others, I realized while preparing the speech and writing the book, has become a habit of mine.

If you’d like to see Jim’s interview on the CBS Morning Show, watch here.

A Little Happier: An Old Joke is a Reminder that to Find Something, We Must Look in the Right Place

As I was working on Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I was often reminded of this old joke, about the guy looking for his wallet under the street light.

Because the fact is, if we want to find something (like a new future for ourselves), we have to look in the right place.

Even if the light is better under the streetlight, it’s no use looking there if you dropped your wallet on the dark corner.

And if you want to change your life, you need to pay attention to the habits that will help to bring about that change.

In writing Better Than Before, I discovered that it’s actually not that hard to change our habits — when we know how to do it in the way that right for us.

Have you ever talked to someone who was really looking for his or her keys in utterly the wrong place? Or have you ever found yourself doing it? It’s surprisingly easy to fall into this trap.

Listen to this mini-podcast episode by clicking PLAY below.

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Want to get in touch? I love hearing from listeners:

 

 Happier listening!

“Deciding to Write Consistently and Actually Doing So for 5 Years Are Very Different Things.”

Interview: John Freeman Gill.

I’ve been friends with brilliant writer John Gill since the first months of our freshman year at Yale — the days are long, but the years are short!

He’s been a New York Times contributor for many years, and writes for many other publications as well. He has just published his debut novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, and it is so good. I was thrilled to have the chance to write a blurb for the cover, and here’s what I said:

John Freeman Gill’s The Gargoyle Hunters is a brilliant evocation of many things: the world of a thirteen-year-old boy, with its mixture of thoughtless destructiveness and wrenching emotion; a son’s relationship with a charismatic, architecture-loving, thieving father; the endless changes to timeless Manhattan during the crumbling, tumultuous 1970s. Funny, heartbreaking, elegiac, unforgettable—David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green meets E. B. White’s Here Is New York.

The novel is getting tremendous buzz and praise. Among other things, The Gargoyle Hunters was named one of Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection for Spring 2017. And if you’d like to read a (terrific) review, check out “‘The Gargoyle Hunters’: A Love Letter to New York City.

I’m going to do a Facebook Live interview with John on Friday, March 31, at 3:00 pm Eastern — we’re going to do the interview on the steps of the townhouse where the novel is set. How great is that!

John has been working on this novel for a long time, and I was curious to learn how his habits helped (or hurt) the process.

GRETCHEN: 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, etc.?

JOHN: Yes, but to explain I’ll first need to give a bit of background. I’ve wanted to be a novelist ever since fifth grade, when I wrote a series of waggish short stories about a raffish British private detective named Anthony Bristol. My tastes became more literary as I grew up, and ever since high school, my favorite novel has been The Horse’s Mouth, by the Anglo-Irish writer Joyce Cary. The book is a hilarious and irresistible 1944 tale about a winningly irreverent old London painter named Gulley Jimson, who begs, borrows, steals, and cons his way through life, shoving all else aside in a relentless drive to finish a gigantic modern painting that has seized his imagination and won’t let go.

When I was in my twenties, I attended an MFA program in creative writing, and in 1995, the first week after I graduated and was on my own, I sat down in a fever and banged out 15 pages of a novel. I liked those pages, but life took me in another direction (screenwriting), and then another (journalism). Over the next two decades, despite writing no new fiction, I read literary novels nonstop and never stopped seeing myself as a novelist who just happened to be writing other kinds of stories. But somehow I never quite took the plunge and committed myself to writing a novel.

Then, a few years ago, I was walking around in Park Slope, Brooklyn, not far from my home, and I stumbled upon a cardboard box full of discarded books in front of an old brownstone. One of the books was a crumbling, yellowed paperback copy of The Horse’s Mouth, a 1957 edition with a tattered purple cover. The serendipity of that moment really did feel like a lightning bolt. I’d forgotten how much I loved Gulley and his relentless artistic drive, and I’d forgotten how much I needed to write fiction. That old paperback book, its spine broken and its pages falling out, reminded me. I gathered up the pages and began to read as I walked home, so engrossed that I nearly got hit by a car in a crosswalk. The novel is narrated in the first person by Gulley himself, and one sentence in particular resonated with me. “And I perceived I hadn’t time to waste on pleasure,” Gulley writes on the very first page. “A man of my age has to get on with the job.”

“The job,” of course, is the making of art. And I, in my forties at the time, decided that Gulley had it exactly right. The time for procrastination was past. I began writing my novel the next morning and didn’t stop until I finished it five years later. It’s called The Gargoyle Hunters, and Knopf is publishing it.

So it sounds like you managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—writing fiction consistently—that had eluded you for ages. How did you do it?

It’s a fair question. Because, of course, deciding to write consistently and actually doing so for five years are very different things. The new habit that I think proved most important was that I began keeping a daily log of how many hours I wrote. This kept me from lying to myself with all kinds of rationalizations about how hard I was working if I wasn’t really buckling down.

When you’re writing a novel, see, you don’t have a boss either to pat you on the head or kick you in the ass. All you have is your own constantly fluctuating sense of how good a day’s work you just performed and how the novel is going over all. So I felt it was necessary to superimpose an overarching structure on the writing process, to simulate having a boss who would take me to task if I was underachieving. And for me, the best way to ensure steady progress was to monitor the time spent at my desk. For me, time equals writing. Some writers talk about how many words they write each day, and I’ve always admired authors who can crank out page after page in a single sitting. But for me, that measurement is pretty meaningless. I’m a very slow, methodical writer who labors over the language, so for me, word count is sort of beside the point. I mean, the idea is to write the right words, not just a lot of them, isn’t it? So by logging the number of hours I write, rather than the number of words, I free myself from the tyranny of quantity and permit myself to take as long as I need to get every sentence and paragraph into a form I’m happy with.

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

I’m terrible at going to bed. I just won’t do it. I’m a sleep idiot. I stay up too late, which saps my energy and keeps me from ever becoming that well-organized fellow of lore who leaps out of bed each morning, carpe-ing the diem and immediately penning reams of deathless prose.

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

I think the most important newish habit I have is swimming. I have no fear of the water—I grew up in the ocean at Fire Island, exultantly body-surfing hours a day—but I’ve never been a strong swimmer; for most of my life I was never good enough to do more than three or four frantic, exhausted laps at a time. My wife’s parents have a beautiful pool up in the Berkshires, though, and two summers ago I basically taught myself to swim. I’m sure I’m doing it all wrong—I’m just going on memory from the lessons I was given as a child—but by taking it slowly and breaking down the elements of what my body was doing in the water, I taught myself to breathe properly, and now I can basically swim laps indefinitely. I belong to a gym that has an Olympic-size pool, and it’s just half a block from my house in Brooklyn, so anytime I’m feeling stressed or just need to escape my own mind, I go swim until I’ve got my zonk on. Immersing yourself in the world of a novel for several years is so consuming that it’s hard to turn your mind off at the end of the work day. Your brain wants to keep rehashing those creative issues you’ve been grappling with all day. And that’s just really destructive and counter-productive. So I’ve found that the best way to make a clean break from the day’s mental efforts is to swim myself to exhaustion. When I do that, I get out of the pool happily devoid of thoughts. Part of the secret to writing, it turns out, is to learn how not to write.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits?

The Internet is the enemy. And lunch. I know from experience that if I ever meet someone for lunch, I never refocus on my work again properly that day. So I solve that problem simply by never having lunch with anyone. I meet someone for lunch maybe five times a year.

The Internet is even more insidious. There’s simply no way to do serious creative work if you keep interrupting yourself to check e-mail or read online articles that fuel your righteous indignation about the state of our national politics. I used to belong to a writers room here in New York, and I found it very enlightening and motivating. On the one hand, there are writers—usually women in their fifties or sixties, I’ve found—who are hardcore: banging away at the keyboard as if they can barely type fast enough to keep up with the rapid-fire verbiage their Muse is shouting in their ear. On the other hand, though, you wouldn’t believe how many people spend their writing days reading about celebrity Scientologists or shopping for shoes. News flash: You can’t write fiction while checking out sparkly high-tops on Zappos.

The truth is, though, I don’t have particularly good self-control myself. So I installed a great piece of software on my laptop called Freedom, which you can program to lock you out of the Internet for whatever period of time you like. It’s a life-changer. I think of it as prosthetic will-power.

“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.