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“If I Have a Regular Daily Routine and I Stick to It, I Can Be Much More Productive.”

Interview: Sharon Shinn.

I love to read, all different kinds of books. One of my friends shares my taste for fantasy and science-fiction, and we swap books back and forth.

A few months ago, she gave me a copy of Sharon Shinn’s Troubled Waters, and I was hooked. I’ve been working my way through all of Sharon Shinn’s books, and she’s written a lot.

If you want to try these novels, I’d start with the “Elemental Blessings” books — I was thrilled recently to get an early copy of Unquiet Land, her latest addition to that set.

Side note: In these “Elemental Blessings” books, the forty-three possible “elemental blessings” play a large role in the development of the characters and in the culture of that world. These blessings cover many aspects: joy, intelligence, beauty, creativity, love, travel, surprise, swiftness, power, triumph, luck, health, and so on.

If you know these books, you may be interested to know that Shinn very kindly drew my blessings — which are just about the least glamorous blessings imaginable! Certainty, endurance, and patience. Sheesh. But they’re surely wonderful blessings for a writer, for whom it’s so important to have an idea and stay sitting in the chair long enough to hammer it out.

Because I’m such a fan of Sharon Shinn’s books, I wanted to ask her about habits, creativity, happiness, and all the rest.

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

Sharon: Like everyone else on the planet, I have too much to do and not enough time to get it all done. I find that if I have a regular daily routine and I stick to it, I can be so much more productive than if I just make a list and hope for the best.

I basically have two jobs—I’m an editor for a bi-monthly association magazine, and I write science fiction/fantasy novels—and I do both of these jobs from home. However, the magazine is essentially my full-time job, so it gets more of my time. One of the reasons I stick pretty closely to a routine is so that I can find enough hours to work on my books. On weekdays, I spend from roughly 9 to 5 working on the magazine, then I take a 30-minute break to walk or exercise, then I spend a couple of hours in the evening writing fiction.

I can’t manage that every day, of course. I take yoga classes one night a week, and sometimes I go out with friends instead, and other obligations often come up. But my goal is usually to have at least three nights a week where I can work on my books. I’m a little more free-form about my weekends, but I try to find time for at least one writing session on Saturday or Sunday as well.

To be fair, I can’t tell if that level of discipline can be called habitual or the clockwork doggedness of a slightly obsessive personality. I tend to get restless and cranky if there’s something I’m supposed to be doing and I haven’t had the chance to do it. And I’m not very good at relaxing. Although I always promise myself I’ll lie around and do nothing once I’ve finished all my tasks, somehow I always find another task to do.

Take a recent Sunday afternoon when I had no plans or obligations. I was thrilled with the idea of just stretching out on the sofa and reading a book. Instead, I made a pie.

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

I spend about 20 minutes every weekday morning doing stretching exercises. A number of years ago, I threw out my back, and it was agony—I couldn’t stand for more than a few minutes, I couldn’t sit at all, I could simply lie down and be miserable. It took weeks of physical therapy before I started improving, and I never want to be in that much pain again. So I do the exercises I was taught back then, and I’ve supplemented them with stretches I’ve learned in yoga and from a friend who’s a physical therapist.

The desire to avoid pain is a great motivator, but I don’t think I would be as faithful about the exercises if I didn’t make them a part of my morning routine. In fact, since they’re not part of my weekend routine, I rarely get around to them on Saturday and Sunday. So I know that for me, making the exercises habitual is the only way to keep my body healthy.

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

Travel! When I’m on a trip, I don’t do my morning stretches, I don’t meet my evening writing goals, it’s like I’ve given myself a pass because I’m in a strange environment. On the one hand, that plays havoc with my productivity (and sometimes bothers my back). On the other hand, sometimes I worry that I’m too much a creature of routine, so I think it might be good for me to slack off now and then so I don’t become a total automaton.

But the minute I step into my own house, I’m back on track.

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

I’m definitely an Upholder. I keep promises to friends and I honor my private resolutions. Occasionally this makes me a less-than-ideal guest, because sometimes I hold off on RSVP’ing until I’m absolutely certain I’m going to have the time and inclination to attend an event.

Being an Upholder can also make it hard for me to drop out of ongoing commitments that are no longer fulfilling or that have become too time-consuming. I sort of have to argue with myself to convince my brain that it’s OK to stop going to community choir practice, for instance. This is also the reason I don’t issue ultimatums to myself unless I’m really, really, really certain I want to end a current behavior. See the next answer!

Do you have any particular bad habits that you wish you could break?

Yes! Every night after I get settled in bed, I pick up the iPhone and start playing word games, usually Scrabble or Spelltower. I know it’s bad for me. I know the blue light will sparkle across my retinas and make me think it’s time to start waking up. I know that I’ll get so engrossed in the game that I won’t just play for a reasonable ten minutes, I’ll play for half an hour…or an hour. But at the time, that little break in the day feels like a gift to myself, and I look forward to it.

What I need to do is devise a time limit or cutoff time—No games after 11 p.m.!—and stick to it. But I’ve hesitated to do that because I know I’ll honor the restriction, and I’m not quite ready for that…

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

I have a piano in the living room, but I rarely sit down and play. For a long time I felt guilt whenever I walked past it and realized I’d let another day go by without touching the keyboard except to dust it when I was cleaning the house. So a couple of years ago I decided that, any time I dusted it, I would also sit down and play it, if only for ten minutes. Since I usually clean the house once a week, this means I’m playing on a regular basis. I still wish I could find an hour a week, but it makes me happier to have these short interludes at the piano.

Oh, and I eat chocolate every single day. Usually in the afternoon. Is that a habit or an indulgence? At any rate, it makes me happy.

Have you ever read any of Sharon Shin’s books?  Which one is your favorite?

“I Physically Put My iPhone in a Different Room. Sometimes Under Lock and Key.”

Interview: Jeff Wilser.

I forget how I got to know Jeff Wilser, but when we met for coffee, he mentioned that he had an idea for a book about Alexander Hamilton — something fun, and also very informative. I told him that I thought his idea sounded terrific; this was even before I saw the Broadway show Hamilton, and now that I’ve seen the show — and loved it as much as everybody else — I think Jeff’s idea was even more terrific.

Well, he did write that book, and it just hit the shelves: Alexander’s Hamilton’s Guide to Life. It’s a book that manages to convey lots of information and big ideas with a light touch.

I was very interested in what Jeff had to say about Hamilton; I also wanted to hear what he had to say about habits and happiness.

Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you?

Jeff: Sticking to a reading schedule.  Everyone enjoys “reading,” but I’ve found that without a strict schedule, and without iron discipline, my reading habits quickly fade into oblivion. So I have a very concrete and nerdy plan: I aim to read a book a week. Sometimes two books in a week, sometimes three, sometimes 0, but at the end of the year, I need to have read at least 52 books. (I envy those super speedy readers who can devour books in one sitting; my speed is average at best.) The game of 52 books in 52 weeks becomes something of a puzzle, where to squeeze in, say, a 900-page biography, I’ll read maybe two short Graham Greene novels.  I’ve found that this habit—of obsessing over the schedule, even tracking it in a spreadsheet—keeps me focused on books and makes me a better reader.

What about writing habits?

I need to write first thing in the morning. I need to do this before I fuss around with anything else.  Before email, before housekeeping, before research, before tweaking my fantasy football lineup.  That’s how I wrote Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life.  First thing in the morning, every morning, I wrote for several hours and only then, later in the day, would I pivot to reading and research.

What gets in the way of your healthy habits?

I’m easily distracted. True, everyone says that they’re easily distracted, but in my case it’s so extreme it’s cartoonish.  Sometimes I can’t even read a single news article without re-checking twitter or my email 5 different times—not an exaggeration.  The siren song of the internet always gets in the way…especially when writing.  At times it’s crippling.

So what’s your hack for this?

I remove the internet from the equation. I use Freedom, a program on my Mac, to disable any connection to the internet. But that’s not enough—I also physically put my iPhone in a different room, sometimes under lock and key.

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

The morning cup of coffee. It’s essential.  When I traveled to India for two weeks, at the risk of being an Ugly American, I lugged pouches of instant coffee.  If I were ever sent to prison, this is the thing I would miss the most. (Besides not getting shivved.)

What about habits do you wish your 18-year-old self knew?

Ladies are not always super thrilled with the habit of playing video games.

What habits do you wish you had?

I wish I was in the habit of speaking on the phone. I broke the habit many, many years ago, and now when the phone rings, I panic.  It doesn’t matter who it is—my family, my best friends in the world—the phone trips me out.   I thought about creating a new habit where, every day, I had to place one outgoing phone call. But that seemed too daunting so I tweaked it to once a week…and that still seemed too daunting.  Someday soon I will try and instill this new habit. Maybe tomorrow. Or next week.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly?

 This might count as cheating, but I’ve adopted some habits very quickly for writing assignments. And I LOVE IT. One time I ate only junk food for 30 days (and lost 11 pounds…the secret was calorie counting.) One time I went on a juice cleanse. Or went vegan.  Even if the habits don’t stick long-term, a sudden immersion into a new habit gives perspective, challenges your old norms, and gets you to recalibrate your life a little. I’m a big fan of Habit Hopping.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

 Habits are what make me tick.  When I get on a good habit groove then I’m firing on all cylinders, and when my habits lapse everything else seems to crumble.  Inertia is a powerful thing.

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

I’ll have to go with the obvious one here: Alexander Hamilton.  It’s a cliche to hear that you need to work really hard, but that’s exactly what he did, from a very young age, and it’s my belief that these habits of his, more than genetics, are what made him great.  He made it a point to read every day. He constantly scribbled notes in a journal. He collected facts and quotes and useful arguments. It looks like genius from the outside, but really it was the result of hard work and, well, excellent habits.  That’s one of the entries in the book: “Turn Grit into Genius.”

“I Realized that My Calendar Was Full of Commitments to Other People, But Few Commitments to Myself.”

Happiness interview: Amy Whitaker.

Amy and I met many years ago. She has a fascinating background: she got both an MBA and an MFA in painting (not a combo you see every day), and she has spent many years thinking about the conjunction of her two interests.

She teaches business to artists and designers, and lectures widely on creativity in the workplace. She’s also an assistant professor of visual arts administration at New York University.

Amy has a new book that just hit the shelves: Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses.

I know from talking to people over the years that one of the habits that people most want to form is the habit of doing creative work. We have so many claims on our time, energy, and money that it can be hard to fit in that element — even when we know it will make us happier.

So I was very eager to hear what Amy had to say.

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

Amy: The mind naturally goes to worrying about what could go wrong. While that’s evolutionarily helpful if you’re being chased by a cheetah, it can make it hard to soak up the joy that’s around you. I have learned some mental habits for when I worry that help me to separate out the facts, to notice any conclusions I’m jumping to, and to question what might or might not be true. You could call it the Habit of Injecting Skepticism.

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

That you have to actually do them, over and over, until they become rituals that support you.

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

I just had a book come out, Art Thinking (Harper Business). In switching from writing it (a.k.a., long romantic getaways, just me and the Microsoft Word doc) to sharing it with people (social reentry and the dawning realization that a project is real), I noticed that I had a habit of acting like my life was happening on a five-second time delay, the way that live television has a lag for bleeping out swear words. Someone would make an offer to help with the book, and I would have to think, oh, this is happening right now. I had to remind myself to show up presently, as if we were all doing improv comedy.

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

I live on my own, so every morning I walk across the street, in New York, to get a cup of coffee, from people whose names I know and who know my standard order. It wakes me up and gives me a sense of community.

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

I’m an Obliger, with a dash of Rebel and Questioner thrown in. I’d like to think that I’m less of a people pleaser than I was growing up, and that my “Obliger” nature comes from an old-fashioned belief that you are only as good as your word. If I tell someone I will do something, I have to do it, even if I have to put something on the back-burner to do it.

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

I’m a social creature and a Southerner originally, so I hate for people to eat or drink alone. That means that if I have any habits related to food or drink, I need to go cold turkey. Otherwise, I think, well, I’ll have that one Manhattan / glass of red wine / cookie / entire chocolate cake because what is life without a shared sense of occasion?

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.?

Several years ago, a friend looked at my calendar and said, “Wow, this doesn’t look at all like what you’re talking about!” I realized that I was putting down all the things that were commitments to other people (see Obliger, question #6) and few of the ones that were commitments to myself. So I started putting everything in my calendar. (Like a time-traveler, I still keep a long-hand calendar in a giant leather-bound book I buy every year.) It was a breakthrough in being able to see the whole landscape of my life—something I actually found myself writing about not long after.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I think I resist habits—or that I work episodically and have different habits within different episodes of my life.

There’s a feeling as a writer that you should have habits, because people will ask you what your writing routine is. And you’re supposed to Ernest-Hemingway the question and explain how you write in the morning and drink with friends in the afternoon. Or that you make yourself get up and write from 5-8 am every day.

I was writing a book about how to carve out creative time in the midst of busy working life, while working full-time. So, I wrote a little on a regular basis time, and then took a deep dive periodically when I had school breaks or bracketed weekends.

When I am writing intensively like that, I have a habit of starting the day with coffee, going for a midday walk, even around the block, and then going for an evening run.

When I was working full-time, I used one of the tools from Art Thinking – the habit of “studio time.” I would decide how much time I had to devote to a creative project—whether a half hour or two hours—and then set it aside and commit to it.

I also used the studio time habit to learn something new—video editing, hip-hop dance—because it renewed my ability to take a risk on feeling (and looking) like an idiot, which I’d argue is an important part of creative process. Risë Wilson, the director of philanthropy for the artist Robert Rauschenberg’s foundation, once described being an artist as “the act of being vulnerable in public.” I use habits to force myself to do that on a regular basis.

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

I made a new friend a few years ago who is one of the most remarkably punctual people I have ever met. She arrives fifteen minutes early. She reminded me of the importance of punctuality. I practice the habit of being on time, and it makes me happier when I do it.

A Little Happier: If Others Think I Can Do a Job, I Can Probably Do It.

I love it when people know just the right thing to say in a situation. Here’s one of my favorite examples — when a friend found the right thing to say to me, when I was nervous before a job interview with Justice O’Connor.

(Spoiler alert: I did get the job.)

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


Happier listening!


“Just Like It’s Not Easy to Lose Weight, It’s Not Easy for People to Let Go of Their Past.”

Interview: Felice Cohen.

I learned about Felice Cohen when I, like twelve million other people, watched a short video where she showed of her 90-square-foot Manhattan studio. (90 square feet is about the size of a Honda Accord, if that helps you visualize how small this space is.)

Several people emailed me about the video, both because it was about dealing with possessions and home, which is a subject that I love, and also because — you can see that she’s reading my book The Happiness Project! Which was so fun.

To see the cameo of The Happiness Project, go to minute 1:01.

Now Felice Cohen has a new book about living in a tiny space. In 90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (or More), she talks about de-cluttering, organizing, and issues about how to live large in a small space.

I wanted to ask Felice for her thoughts on happiness, habits, and home.

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

Felice: Writing out a new To Do list. Seeing the tasks I’ve already crossed out makes me feel accomplished, while writing out new goals inspires me. A To Do list also adds structure to my day and frees up mental space I’d otherwise spend trying to remember all that I need to do. Best of all, these lists capture life’s moments. When I was the Chief of Staff to the president at Hunter College, I kept one large notebook and wrote down everything I had to do, often filling one or two entire pages a day. With each completed task, I would put one line through it and write the date. On occasion I would be asked days or weeks later if something ever got done. Looking back through pages to confirm, I would always be amazed by what I had succeeded at doing.

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

Healthy habits are cumulative. Eating right, exercising, working towards your goals and believing in yourself are investments for your long-term health and happiness. I now go into every situation with an open mind thinking it will have a positive outcome. And why not? Life is full of surprises and while things may not always go your way, having a positive attitude can at least reduce the sting when they don’t. Best of all, I know there’s always next time.

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

Exercise. While I also make sure to eat right and get enough sleep, exercise is crucial to my being able to write and organize a client’s home or office. I suffer from occasional bouts of lower back pain and when that happens I can barely stand up, let alone get anything done. As long as I exercise (cycle, walk, yoga, stand up paddle board) everyday, I’m okay. Plus, the endorphins are great and who doesn’t want to feel strong? It’s also part of my long-term goal to keep my body resilient to aging, so I can continue to do the things I love. Many people ask how I find the time. Simple. I don’t have a lot of stuff and I’m organized and efficient with my time. When you spend less time looking for stuff, cleaning stuff or working to pay off stuff, you’ll find you have a lot more time to do the things you love.

I also make my bed first thing every morning. It sets a productive intention to the day.

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

When I lived in the 90-square-foot NYC studio, I didn’t have a kitchen and only a mini fridge. At first I went out to dinner or got take out every night. I was living on the Upper West Side where there are endless restaurants. I soon realized I was spending a lot of money, plus you don’t always know what’s going into the food. I had a toaster oven (where I made my Shrinky Dinks art), so I decided to put that to good use. I soon got really good at making meals in the toaster, plus got accustomed to making salads in the airplane-sized bathroom sink! I also gave myself an incentive. The money I saved from going out to eat, I put towards a new bicycle.

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

Upholder. All. Day. Long. I look at life as an endless road of possibilities. I grew up thinking I could achieve anything I wanted. (My mom was always taking me to the library and my favorite book was Girls Can Be Anything by Norma Klein. I was also a varsity athlete and was recruited to play two Division 1 sports. I loved competing, but more so, I loved the camaraderie of being part of a team. If we lost a game, I wouldn’t brood like some other teammates. Sure, winning was fun, but at that age, I knew that either outcome didn’t really matter. It was only a game. Life to me sometimes feels like a game. We can either enjoy it or be defensive all the time. I choose to be on the Enjoy It Team.

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

December. There’s a holiday craft fair in Manhattan that sells enormous gingerbread cookies from a farm upstate. Those cookies are my kryptonite. (Okay, that and Nutella.) The key I found to battling things that interfere with healthy habits is to give in to them once in a while. (In my case, a few weeks out of the year.) It’s something I look forward to and enjoy. I mean, what else am I going to live for? Kale? Be real.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Embrace. Habits to me signify change and change represents new possibilities. I’ve met many people whose first reaction is to resist change. “But I’ve always done it this way.”  I think they fear it will make their lives harder. Many of my clients have a hard time getting rid of stuff. “I might need that one day!” We get attached to things and don’t think we’ll be able to live without it. But there is not one person who I’ve helped get rid of bags and bags (and for many, more bags!) of stuff who didn’t feel happy and free when I was done. Just like it’s not easy to lose weight, it’s not easy for people to let go of their past. Once I explain getting rid of stuff does not mean they’re forgetting their past, but making room for their future with new experiences, they’re more able to part with things they no longer have use for but are keeping out of habit.

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

A boss at my alma mater: the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I helped run orientation for 4,500 new students every summer for seven years. My boss had many rules, but her most important – “Better 10 minutes early than one minute late,” was etched into our brains, ensuring that we’d be where we needed to be and on time. That maxim has benefited me numerous times ever since. Whether I was catching a flight, working with a client or even meeting a friend, being early not only keeps my stress level down, but I have also met new people and seen sights I would otherwise have missed.