Tag Archives: interview

“It’s Important that I Carve Out Time in My Day, Every Day, to Think for Myself.”

Interview: Mike Erwin.

I got to know Mike Erwin a few years ago, when he invited me to speak to his class at West Point. He gave me a fascinating tour and explanation of what it’s like to attend West Point.

These days, Mike is the CEO of the Character & Leadership Center, whose mission is to produce better leaders through a deeper understanding of character. He is the Founder and President of the Positivity Project, a non-profit organization with the mission to help America’s youth build better relationships by recognizing the character strengths in themselves and others, and he founded and is Chairman f the Board of the veteran-support non-profit Team Red White & Blue. Mike deployed to Iraq twice and Afghanistan twice, and still serves as a Major in the U.S. Army Reserves, assigned to West Point’s Leadership Department.

Along with his co-author Judge Raymond M. Kethledge he’s written a book called Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude.

As the title suggest, it’s about the importance of solitude for exercising self-mastery, focus, and leadership. It takes effort to find solitude each day, and the book shows through historical examples and firsthand interviews how helpful solitude is, to a wide range of leaders.

As someone who needs a lot of solitude and silence, every day, this argument resonates deeply with me.

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

Mike: Running!  Especially on my own or pushing my 15-month-old in the stroller.  I love the sensation of my blood flowing, heart beat increasing—and then the mental energy that flows from it.

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

The biggest healthy habit I have developed in the past few years is my diet.  The most important thing I’ve learned is the need for planning.  When I plan well, my healthy habits follow.

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

I wouldn’t say that this happens continually, but enough that it concerns me: comparison.  No matter how much I’m doing to make a positive impact in my community, the non-profit organizations I founded, for my church, family and friends—there is always someone doing more.  When I compare what I’m doing to them, it robs me of my joy and satisfaction.

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

One habit that is super important to me is carving out time to think on my own.  My life moves really fast these days, with four children aged 7 and under, The Positivity Project growing rapidly (from 33 to 200 partner schools), my U.S. Army Reserve duty at West Point for three weeks and a book coming out.  In these times, it’s even more important that I carve out time in my day, every day, to think for myself.  My wife and I already cut out cable television about a year ago, but I make sure to spend time, sometimes just sitting in my office with the computer screen turned off, to process everything until I feel that I’m ready to reengage with my work, emails, etc….

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

Over the past few years, I have worked to break my habit of drinking soda 1-2 times per day.  I broke the habit by strictly limiting the decision to buy soda at the store while shopping.

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

I am definitely an Upholder!  I am a list maker, am vigilant to accomplish what I set out to do–and hate letting other people down, even on something as simple as responding to emails in a timely manner. [I remember that the minute I met Mike, I immediately recognized him as a fellow of Upholder.]

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

Travel!  I am on the road 7-8 days per month for my work and sometimes fly very early and have a 0345 wake-up—or get home after midnight.  Eating healthy is very difficult on the road, but I am able to maintain the good habits when I plan thoroughly and bring snacks with me.

“Baristas at My Coffee Shop Know When I Have a Deadline: I Order the Chocolate-Chip Muffin for Breakfast!”

Interview: Andrea Petersen.

Andrea Petersen is a news editor and feature writer for the Wall Street Journal — she writes about everything from science to health to aging to family.

I know Andrea because we’re in a non-fiction writers’ group together. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot about her book on anxiety as she was writing it, and I couldn’t wait for her to finish so that I could read it.

That book has just hit the shelves: On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety. In it, she deftly combines an honest, wry account of her own challenges with anxiety with a thorough examination of contemporary research.  So many people struggle with anxiety — or are close to someone who does — so this book is a terrific resource.

I love this kind of book — what I’d call a “reported memoir,” when writers use their own experience as a lens through which to investigate the research, history, and thinking around a subject.

You can watch a fascinating interview with Andrea on the Wall Street Journal website here. She describes her first panic attack and about her struggle with anxiety disorder — and she reviews what she’s learned about anxiety disorder, and what the research shows.

You can also read an excerpt from On Edge here.

I was eager to hear what she had to say about how she happiness, habits, and anxiety.

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

Andrea: Every night I read with my 8-year-old daughter. Sometimes she’ll read to me; sometimes I’ll read to her. Right now, we’re just starting the first Harry Potter book. I love knowing that, even if the day is super hectic, I’ll have that special evening bonding time with her. It often carries over into the morning, too. On the city bus on the way to school, we’ll discuss our favorite characters and what happened during the previous night’s reading.

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

Now I know that while screw-ups happen, they don’t need to permanently waylay me. In order to establish a good habit, I’ve found that I often need to keep trying—and failing and trying and failing—before it will stick. I used to think it was all or nothing. So if I promised myself that I was going to work out every day and I missed a day, I’d throw in the towel. I also know that I need to make goals more realistic now. So I’d probably start with the goal of working out once a week. Once I established that, I’d move to twice a week. And so on.

Which habits are most important to you?

I prioritize sleep. I need eight hours a night to function well. I’ve also found that sufficient sleep is critical to keeping my anxiety under control. (There’s a significant body of research showing that lack of sleep can fuel anxiety.) I also make a habit of setting aside at least a half hour each week to phone a friend or two. Between work and family, life can get so busy and friendships can often be neglected. I get so much joy and support from my friends that I try to take the time to nurture those relationships.

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

I wanted to establish a regular yoga practice. (Research is finding that yoga can ease anxiety symptoms.) And even though a lovely yoga studio was just a few blocks from my home, I found it difficult to get there more than once a week. The classes were an hour to an hour and a half long and it was tough to carve out that chunk of time. Then a friend of mine recommended online yoga classes. Some of these are only 15 minutes long. And I can definitely find 15 minutes in a day! So, now most mornings I start my day with a short online class. During the week, I’ll keep it to 15 or 20 minutes. On the weekends, I’ll explore longer ones. These little bits of yoga may not seem like much, but I can definitely see results. I have more upper body strength and feel calmer and more focused.

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

I’m a Questioner (Though I think I have strong Obliger tendencies, too.) I do a great deal of research before I undertake a course of action. [Hmmmm…Questioners and Obligers are the opposite of each other, so Andrea, I don’t think you’re a mix. We will discuss another time.]

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

Work deadlines are the biggest culprit. If I’m staring down a big one, I’ll sometimes skimp on sleep, skip yoga and ditch my healthy eating habits. The baristas at my neighborhood coffee shop know when I have a deadline: That’s when I order the chocolate chip muffin for breakfast!

“My Not Procrastinating Stems from Laziness. If I Do Something Immediately, I Can Go Back to Reading.”

Interview: Pamela Paul.

I’ve known Pamela Paul for many years. When I switched from law to writing, one happiness stumbling block was that I didn’t know many other writers. Pamela was among the first writers that I got to know, and through her, I met a lot of other writers who have become my friends. So she has been a huge contributor to my personal happiness.

In her professional life, Pamela is an acclaimed journalist, editor, and author, and she’s also a passionate reader — credentials that make her perfect for her current position as the editor of The New York Times Book Review and head of all things book-related at The New York Times.

She’s also a member of one of my (three) beloved children’s literature reading groups. In fact, she wrote about the Kidlit group in her New York Times piece, “The Kids’ Books Are All Right.

I’m so excited — Pamela has written a memoir that combines her love of writing and reading (and also travel), and it just hit the shelves last week. The day it went on sale, I ran out to get my copy for my weekend reading: My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. I loved it.

Since high school, Pamela has kept a single journal with her at all times, a book called Bob. It’s her “Book of Books” (“Bob,” get it?), and in it, she records every book that she reads.

My Life with Bob is a reflection on her relationship with the books she reads — how those books have been entwined in her experiences, her relationships, her extensive travels, her work, and her understanding of the world.

When I read it, I was thrilled to see a mention of Kidlit! And myself mentioned by name! Yes, I am a character in someone else’s memoir.

I love memoirs where people explore their passions, and I also love reading books that gives me a reading list for more books to read.

I was also fascinated by the way Pamela reflected on her life by looking at her “Bob.” It’s such an interesting angle. Like writing a one-sentence journal, or taking one photo every day, she found a quick, manageable way to record her experience in a way that allowed her to look back, reflect, and get a better glimpse of her life. So many thought-provoking, hilarious stories.

I couldn’t wait to hear what Pamela had to say about happiness and habits.

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

Pamela: When I am away from my children, I keep my phone by my side. When I am with my children, I (try very hard to) keep my phone away from my side. Obviously, work (and life) can interfere with that, but I really want to be present when I’m with them and available when I’m not. As a parent working full-time outside the home, this makes me happier.

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

I know that you can change your habits, for better and for worse. When I was younger, I thought you created habits for life. Now I realize that life can interfere with even the most ingrained habits. For example, I used to have a habit of exercising three times a week, but I’ve lost that in the last 2 years. Obviously, that falls into the “for worse” category. For better, I have found that when circumstance calls for it, I can start much better habits. When I was pregnant with each of my kids, I was able to learn to sleep on my side and my back, rather than my stomach, which I know is better for my back and overall posture.

Like a lot of people, I’m hard enough on myself as it is. Knowing that there can be a certain amount of flexibility in my habits makes me feel more aspirational and optimistic about the possibility of forming better ones, and more forgiving about falling into poor ones.

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

My most important habit is sleep. If I don’t get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep, I am generally unhappy. If I have less than 6 hours, I almost entirely useless. If I get between 6 hours and 7 hours, I complain about it all day and blame all that goes wrong in the world on my lack of sleep, and that includes everything my kids do that irritates me that day, every unpleasant news development and every personal failing. Also, I send emails I regret and blurt out things I ought never have said. Sleep makes everything better.

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

Books keep me up later than they should that isn’t good for my most important habit, sleep. Also, really good TV shows, when I have the chance to watch them, are terrible for sleeping. The most recent one was “Stranger Things,” which I was possessed by. Now it’s “The Night Manager.” A few years ago, it was “Breaking Bad.” That show nearly destroyed me, and a few weeks after I’d finally finished binge watching it again, I started watching the first episode from the beginning and knew immediately that if I finished watching that episode, I would fall right back down the rabbit hole and not emerge again until I’d gone through every season. I had to turn it off at that very moment. It’s taken effort not to go back there.

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.?

Like most kids, I procrastinated doing everything: raking the leaves, constructing dioramas, bringing in bagels from the outside freezer. Then one day, I had a kind of epiphany though I can’t say it began with a lightning bolt. Instead, I recall it happening as I was sitting in my childhood bedroom, pushing a pencil through the grayish pink carpet while contemplating what I didn’t want to have to do that week. Here was my realization:

Say I had a homework assignment. I realized that I could either put the assignment off for a week and thereby add to the list of things I had to do, which is to say, add a week’s worth of low-level stress and then a day of high-stress when I struggled to get it done at the last minute. Or, I could simply do the homework as soon as it was assigned, and then spend a week feeling accomplished and relaxed and able to read or play games on my brother’s Apple II+ or do whatever else I wanted to do with that time. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, and it has ever since. I know it sounds show-offy to brag about it, but fundamentally, not procrastinating stems from a profound laziness. If I do something immediately, I get it out of the way and I can go back to lying around reading or watching a movie instead.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?


“The Incremental Improvements We Make Become Dramatic and Powerful over Time.”

Interview: Tasha Eurich.

As someone who values self-knowledge, I was intrigued by Tasha Eurich’s new book, Insight, about self-awareness. Her research shows that we are remarkably poor judges of ourselves and how we’re perceived by others, and it’s rare to get candid, objective feedback from colleagues, employees, and even friends and family.

In my own life, I’ve found that responses from others have helped me better to understand myself and how I come across. My daughter Eleanor recently made me see myself in an entirely new light. And through my discussions with Elizabeth on the Happier podcast, I’ve come to understand better how my Upholder ways may sometimes rub people the wrong way. What, I’m being rude when I send that work email over the weekend?

In Insight, Tasha tells stories of people who’ve made dramatic self-awareness gains, and offers secrets, techniques and strategies to help readers do the same — and therefore improve their work performance, career satisfaction, leadership potential, relationships, and more. I was curious to learn about her habits.

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

Tasha: I love this question because my research on self-awareness relates so nicely to your enlightening work on habits. I’ve spent the last three years researching what self-awareness is and how we can improve it to be more successful and confident at work (and at home). Part of that involved studying people who’ve dramatically improved their understanding of who they are and how they’re seen by others. Interestingly, I didn’t find any consistent patterns by gender or by job type or even by age—what they all had in common was a belief in the importance of self-awareness and a daily commitment to it.

In a way, self-awareness was the habit they cultivated. Whether they spent time each evening reflecting on what went well and what didn’t or regularly questioning their assumptions about themselves by getting feedback from people they trusted, or daily mindfulness meditation, each person made it a habit to reflect on their self-knowledge.

What I love about this is that it shows that often there is no big moment or epiphany for most people, rather, it’s something we can chip away at each and every day. Added up, the incremental improvements we make do become dramatic and powerful over time.

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

Most recently my adopted dog Fred! She’s a five-pound poodle and puppy mill survivor, from the National Milldog Rescue (an incredible organization!!). I’ve taken to bringing her with me to lots of the places I go—to restaurant patios, to friends’ houses, and even on some of my business trips. Whenever I’m taking Fred somewhere, I’ll announce to her that we’re about to go on an adventure, and her ears perk up and she runs towards the door. It’s a small thing but I think any day that I get to practice that habit is a day that we both feel more relaxed, happy, and at peace. We are each other’s emotional support animals!

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

About three years ago, I joined Orange Theory Fitness, a gym that does high-intensity interval training. I’d literally never run a mile in my life—I was the awkward kid who sat out in gym class because of my asthma. I started going once or twice a week, and not only did I find it surprisingly enjoyable, I was actually sad on the days I didn’t go! I joke that I wrote most of my book while running on the treadmill at the gym. I’ve found that there’s no better way for me to get unstuck—intellectually and emotionally—than high impact exercise.

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

Based on the quiz, I think I’m an Upholder and I am very goal and rule oriented. But I also care about others’ expectations of me. The day my first book hit the New York Times bestseller list, I literally turned to my husband and said “Well, I guess it’s time to start the next book!” He was horrified and dragged me to a celebratory dinner. I’ve always had pretty unreasonably high expectations for myself and while it’s helped me achieve many of my goals, it wasn’t always healthy. I’ve found myself worried about whether I’m meeting others’ expectations—am I being a good consultant? A good wife? A good friend? A good daughter? Most days, asking these questions is healthy, but I have to make sure that my own needs are not getting lost in the shuffle, which is a little Obliger-y. [From Gretchen: These views are absolutely consistent with Upholderness. Upholders respond both to outer and inner expectations.]

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I’ve always craved novelty in my day-to-day life. It’s so interesting being married to someone who has worked for the same company for 22 years—my husband loves having the same routine every day and finds comfort and excitement in it. For me, though, one of the reasons I was less-than-fulfilled when I worked in the Fortune 500 world was showing up to the same office in the same place with the same people every day.

But that’s also why I love what I do now—I go from being locked in my office or a coffee shop writing one day to getting on a plane and flying to work with a consulting client or do a keynote. No two days are the same, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

That said, I don’t think that an ever-changing routine necessarily precludes one from developing habits—for example, if anyone messes with my airport check-in/security routine, I get pretty stressed. These habits just might not be as apparent to outside observers as they are to me!

One of the things I hope people learn from my new book Insight is that self-awareness allows you to acknowledge the things that are important to you—not what you think should be important but what actually is—and design your life (and by extension, your habits) around them. I can have both novelty that I crave and habits that create healthy order.

Podcast 114: Say “I’m Sorry,” an Interview with Hollywood Legend Sherry Lansing, and a Spice-Related Hack.

Update: Elizabeth’s new podcast Happier in Hollywood launches on May 18! Also, I just finished first-pass pages for my book The Four Tendencies, which is now available for pre-order. (If you’re inclined to buy the book, it’s a big help to me if you pre-order.)

We read from Dani Shapiro’s memoir Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage.

Try This at Home: Say you’re sorry. We mention two books: Aaron Lazare’s On Apology and Gary Chapman’s The Five Languages of Apology, which argues that there are five “languages” of apology:

  • Expressing regret — “I’m sorry”
  • Accepting responsibility — “I was wrong”
  • Making restitution — “What can I do to make it right?”
  • Genuinely repenting — “I’ll try not to do that again”
  • Requesting forgiveness — “Will you please forgive me?”


You can find the website SorryWatch here.

Happiness Hack: If you want to collect a memento when traveling, buy spices. If you’re looking for the site about reading books related to travel destinations, it’s Longitude Books: Recommended Reading for Travelers.

Interview: Sherry Lansing. Check out Stephen Galloway‘s biography, Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker. Gosh, she is really a wise person.

In the photo, you can see me holding up the book about Sherry Lansing — also note that I’m wearing the “HAPPY” sweater that Elizabeth gave me for Christmas.

Demerit:  Elizabeth was working at home, and she covered four miles on the treadmill on the first day — but then she didn’t exercise again.

Gold Star: I give a gold star to Elizabeth for dealing with her blepharitis. I write about the Strategy of Convenience in my book about habits, Better Than Before.

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Happier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #114

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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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