Tag Archives: interview

“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?

Embrace.

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.

“Once I Stopped Jonesing for WiFi, Life Was Old School Awesome.”

Interview: Daniel Lerner.

Dan Lerner teaches the most popular elective at New York University, “The Science of Happiness.” One of my favorite subjects!

His new book just hit the shelves. U Thrive: How to Succeed in College (and Life) is a fun, comprehensive guide to staying happy and productive in college — and beyond. It’s a mix of science, tips, and example from real life.

Obviously, with a daughter going off to college in a few months, this title caught my interest. I hope that she’ll go forth unafraid, and thrive once she arrives.

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

Dan: While there are many influential components of effective habit formation, one that is not only among the most powerful is may also be the most pleasurable: positive, supportive relationships can turn a chore into a welcome challenge, and pain into pleasure (well…almost).  You are more likely to drag yourself for a run when you know that you have committed to do it with a pal. People regulate their study or work habits study more effectively when scheduling it with others. And, hey, none of us quit smoking because the body just stops craving nicotine – we do it because we want to see our kids grow up, and not just live longer lives, but do so longer with friends and loved ones. You’ve got to have a darn good reason to develop (or quit) a habit, and other people can help get you (and you can help get them) over the hump. [Dan, I’m guessing that you’re an Obliger.]

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

Cell phones, email, and surfing the web. OMG, make it stop. I did a boys’ week last summer with my buddy, his sons and my son. We were in the wilds of Colorado, an hour away from any and all connectivity. Once I stopped jonesing for wifi, life was old school awesome. Even the boys –- whose ages range from 7-10 — were over the moon happy with board games and slingshots. Here in the city when I hang with my boy I often leave the phone at home, and for work I am constantly on the lookout for wifi free cafes. I think that my work is important, but it’s not like I am needed to save lives at any given moment. I mean really…what is so important that I can’t go for an undistracted game of catch or focus on some quality writing time?

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

If I haven’t worked out in over 48 hours I am a different person – and by that I don’t mean a better one. Just ask my family – they have actually kicked me out of the apartment with a stern “Maybe you should go to the gym. Now.” Two hours later I have gone from rabid pit bull to playful puppy dog. Oh, and every night since he was born 9 and a half years ago, the last thing that I do before I go to sleep is tiptoe into my son’s room as he sleeps, kiss his forehead, and whisper to him that I love him more than anything in the world. It is such a lovely way to remind myself of what’s important, and a regular reminder that no matter how the day went, I am truly blessed.

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

When I am in New York City, I won’t let anything get in the way of physical exercise, because I know how much better I am for my family, friend, and work when I am able to move. On the road though it can get tough to maintain as I generally fly into a city and spend time with colleagues and students from wheels down to wheels up. That said, my sleep habits when I travel get a major boost. As the saying goes, early to bed (that’s been freshly made, where I am alone, without two dogs, and no chance of an early morning surprise superfly full body leap from the nine-year-old animal that is my son), early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and…you know the rest.

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.?

I used to enjoy the occasional cigarette – a social smoker if you will. After my dad passed away I never lit one up again. It wasn’t that he died of cancer related illness – he lived a happy, full 88 years — but I remember the moment that it happened thinking that I didn’t want my son to have to go through that kind of sadness any sooner then he absolutely needed to. I have changed many habits as a result of my son, getting more sleep (to be a better dad), cutting back on the work obsession (to be a more present dad) and meditating (to be more present when I am present). Kids? Wha-BAM! They are a walking, talking source of lightning energy anytime that we choose to tap in. [Yup, Obliger.]

Podcast 121: How to Get More Reading Done, a Car-Related Hack, and an Interview with Sam Walker about Leadership.

Update: We love reading everyone’s haiku!

Here’s mine for today:

Writing my haiku

A new way to see the world

Quiet, creative.

Try This at Home: Read more. Something that definitely boosts my happiness! For my one-pager about “Reading Better Than Before,” it’s here.

As promised, here are Daniel Pennac’s “10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader.”

Happiness Hack: Michael Melcher suggests using the vacuum at the gas station to keep the car clean. Outer order, inner calm.

Check out his podcast, Meanwhile, for ideas about how to improve your work and life.

Interview: We talked to journalist and editor Sam Walker about his fascinating book The Captain Class: the Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams. It’s about sports, leadership, and success.

Sam mentions that he’s a Questioner. Don’t know your Tendency? Take the quiz here to see if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.

Sam’s Try This at Home: Ride a bike to work.

Gretchen’s (Possible) Demerit: I decided to stop driving in New York City. I write about my dislike of driving in Happier at Home,  and as part of the experiment of that book I worked hard to get back into the practice of driving. This decision feels cowardly — but those drives drain me and casts a shadow over summer weekends.

Elizabeth’s Gold Star: Elizabeth and Adam just celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary, and that occasion reminded her how much work our mother did, to plan her wedding. It was gorgeous, and just what Elizabeth wanted.

Two Resources:

  1.  To get the one-page PDF on “Reading Better Than Before,” “Working Better Than Before,” “Eating Better Than Before,” or “Exercising Better Than Before,” you can find them here.
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Happier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #121

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“I Wrote This Book on a Computer Keyboard that Used to Belong to Malcolm Gladwell.”

Interview: Daniel McGinn.

Dan McGinn is an editor at Harvard Business Review, and he’s written for publication such as Wired, Inc., the Boston Globe Magazine, and Newsweek.

He also has a book that just hit the shelves this week: Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed. This is a question that fascinates many of us — how can we “psych ourselves up” to achieve our aims better?

As Dan explains, many strategies have been proven to boost performance. Some are widely practiced, some are dismissed as superstition, some are counter-intuitive — but what really works?

This book is crammed both with research and with practical, real-life examples of how people put these principles to work. Dan gives great suggestions for many strategies that can work in our own day-to-day lives, and he explains why they’re effective.

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

Dan: I’ve spent two years reporting on how people prepare to perform while writing Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed. From this work, I’ve concluded that people in many professions can benefit from having the kind of pre-game routine or habits that we usually associate with Olympic or professional athletes. This routine can include rituals or superstitious behaviors, or listening to a particular kind of music or playlist, or relying on different techniques to boost confidence and reduce anxiety. Depending on the activity, it may even include drugs like beta blockers to lessen the nervous-making effects of adrenaline. Whether your work is done in isolation (like writing or coding) or in front of other people (like making sales calls or pitching venture capitalists), my research suggests you’ll do better if you find the mix of tool that get you in the optimal mindset in the final few minutes before you perform.

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

I have a long commute. Listening to audio books (purchased on Audible, or from my public library on Overdrive) has turned a big annoyance into something I look forward to. This habit consistently boosts my mood, and since I’m a writer myself, listening to good writing helps prime me to do my own work.

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

In my work as a writer, I’ve tried to increase my creativity and productivity by using a set of habits before I write. I try to spend a couple of minutes reading something I’ve written previously of which I’m especially proud; focusing on past success boosts my confidence. (After reading research on visual priming, I also keep some framed examples of my past work on my office walls to subconsciously prime me to perform.) I used to try to find the perfect music to listen to while I write, but after reading the research on music and productivity, I’ve realized that as an introvert, I work better in silence, so now I often use noise-cancelling headphones; when I want to be really productive, I write in a library. I also rely on superstition. Specifically, there’s research on “social contagion” that suggests using an implement (like a golf club) once used by someone you admire can help you perform better. I have a computer keyboard that used to belong to Malcolm Gladwell. I wrote this book on it, and while I don’t use it every day, I will use it for especially important or challenging work. It’s just one more way to feel more confident as I get to work.

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

I’ve always been a sporadic exerciser. But in the last six months I’ve started going to spin class several times a week. I started using my gym’s app to reserve a spot in class, and then I began paying an extra $20 a month to be able to reserve classes up to 7 days in advance. (Otherwise, you can only reserve 12 hours in advance.) I do cancel sometimes, but knowing that I’ve saved a spot (potentially taking it from someone else, as the class is often full) makes it more of a commitment, and that appeals to the Obliger in me. So far, it’s making a big difference.

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

I’m an Obliger. If I make plans to go for a solo run at 6 am, odds are 50-50 it will happen. If I agree to meet you on the first tee for a 6am golf round, I’ll be there every single time. I’d never heard of the Upholder/Questioner/Rebel/Obliger framework until I read your book, and understanding this tendency has been really powerful in helping me understand why I keep some commitments more than others. For instance, at work I now realize that setting a deadline for myself isn’t nearly as effective as telling someone else about a deadline (“I’ll get this to you by the end of business on Tuesday”), even if they haven’t asked when I’ll deliver.

“I’m Thankful for What I Have and Hopefully a Little Less Selfish than 18-Year-Old Me.”

Interview: Áine Fay.

Lately, I’ve learned a lot about the impressive work of Concern Worldwide U.S., an international humanitarian organization that works to transform the lives of the poorest people in the poorest countries.

For almost fifty years, Concern has been visiting the places that few other people choose to go—often, it’s a grueling task simply to reach the destination, because there just isn’t a road that goes there. And Concern doesn’t just hand out supplies from the back of a truck. The people of Concern really dig in, to hear what a community needs, where the true opportunities for growth and change might be.

Aine Fay is the President of Concern Worldwide U.S., serving as the day-to-day leader overseeing the operations of a growing team of more than 50 people engaged in programs, development, communications, advocacy, development education, finance, and administration.  She’s also the organization’s lead strategist.

Trained as a nurse, Áine joined Concern in January 1983, and what started as a 2-year volunteer contract in Bangladesh has turned into a 30-year long commitment. Áine has lived and worked in some of the world’s most difficult environments, including Ethiopia, Uganda, South Sudan, Haiti and Afghanistan.

I was very interested to hear what she had to say about how to build a happier, healthier, more productive life.

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

Áine: Cycling to and from the office – the weather rarely scares me off.  It starts my day well and is a clear break between work and home in the evening and a fantastic de-stressor.  It’s a rare day on my bike in New York that I don’t see something to make me smile or even laugh out loud.

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

My mother’s adage ‘moderation in all things’.  If only I had listened all my habits would have been healthier from the get-go.

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

I am generally a happy individual – I love my work with Concern and feel blessed that I wandered into it 34 years ago to give 2 years to a good cause.  Seeing how people who live in dire poverty make the most of their lot, who have the same ambitions for their families and strive hard daily to improve their lives – my work has  made me who I am. I’m thankful for what I have and hopefully a little less selfish than the 18 year old me.

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

Travel.  I travel a huge amount for my job (which I love) but it does absolutely interfere in both the habit of regular exercise and healthy eating.  It’s difficult when you arrive in the remote areas that Concern works in to be fussy about what you eat, and it’s certainly not OK to be critical when the people you are seeing every day may not be able to afford 3 meals a day, so I just dig in, enjoy and live to fight the flab another day!  Similarly for exercise, security issues usually mean that I cannot exercise outdoors when I travel to these remote areas and I have never developed the discipline of indoor exercise – maybe that’s the healthy habit I need to develop.

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.  My sixtieth year – a milestone birthday and the year I moved to New York.  I challenged myself to train for a ½ marathon to raise funds for a Concern program and this in turn led me to train and complete the New York Marathon two years later.  I don’t do such long distances now but keep up jogging on as a regular basis as life allows.

What else would you particularly like to bring to readers’ attention?

Think of something to be thankful for every day – My work with the poorest people on our planet serves as a reminder to me how lucky I am and despite the struggles we think I have, there are many, many people around us who are so much worse off and without the safety nets that we have.

To learn more about the work of Concern Worldwide U.S., or to donate to their efforts, go here.