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Want to Change an Important Habit? Tips for Upholders, Questioners, Obligers & Rebels.

Do you want to make a significant change in your life? Or help someone else to make an important change?

Often, this means changing a habit (get more sleep, quit sugar, exercise regularly, spend more time in nature, put down devices). Habits are like the invisible architecture of daily life — research suggests that about 40% of our existence is shaped by our habits.

In my book Better Than Before, I identify the 21 strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. (Want to see the whole list? Scroll to the bottom of this post.)

Sometimes people get a bit freaked out that there are so many strategies to choose from — but it’s helpful that so many strategies exist. Because some strategies work very well for some people, and not for others, and some strategies are available to us at some times in our lives, but not at other times.

The most important point? There is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution to changing habits. It turns out that it’s not that hard to change your habits—when you do it in the way that’s right for you.

To change your habits, it’s crucial to identify your Tendency.

Yes, I’m obsessed with my Four Tendencies framework. It explains so much! The world is much less puzzling and frustrating to me now that I understand the Four Tendencies. (Order my new book, The Four Tendencies here.)

When you know if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel, you’re better able to set yourself up for success. And if you’re trying to help other people to change their habits, you’re more effective.

Don’t know your Tendency? Take the quiz here.

Note: While many strategies work for just about everybody (Convenience, Inconvenience, Foundation, Clean Slate, Lightning Bolt), some strategies that work very well for one Tendency can actually be counter-productive for another.

UPHOLDER

Strategy of Scheduling (most important for Upholders)

The Strategy of Scheduling is a powerful tool for Upholders. They love to keep a schedule and march through every item. Whatever appears on the calendar—go to the gym on Monday and Thursday, write 1,000 words every day, goof off—gets done. They can make time for every person and activity they value, by putting it on the calendar.

Strategy of Clarity

When Upholders know clearly what’s expected, they can generally meet that expectations. Very, very important to remember: Upholders can meet inner expectations, but only when those inner expectations are articulated.

 

Strategy of Monitoring

Upholders do well with the Strategy of Monitoring, because they tend to love to-do lists with items to check off. Monitoring plays to this inclination: “I intend to walk 10,000 steps today, and look, my monitor says I hit that number.”

Strategy of Pairing

Upholders can make good use of the Strategy of Pairing, because it’s easy for them to enforce the pairing rule on themselves. If an Upholder gets himself to go to the gym by pairing, “I can only shave on a day when I’ve gone to the gym,” he won’t have any trouble holding himself to that pairing.

Note: Because Upholders can take advantage of just about every strategy, anyone who touts a scheme or device that’s meant to help people form good habits will have some success—because Upholders will tend to uphold, no matter what.

QUESTIONER

Strategy of Clarity (most important for Questioners)

The Strategy of Clarity is crucial for Questioners. They want to know exactly what they’re doing, and why. They won’t meet an expectation if they don’t understand the reason, so they must receive robust answers to their questions. They also must clearly see and trust the authority and expertise of the person asking them to meet that expectation.

Strategy of Monitoring

The Strategy of Monitoring is a good fit for Questioners; Questioners’ love of data means they enjoy self-monitoring. They might wear a device to track the number of steps they take; use an app to track when they take their medication, or chart what time they go to bed.

Strategy of Distinctions

The Strategy of Distinctions may resonate with Questioners, because it emphasizes that a habit should be tweaked very specifically to suit an individual’s character and idiosyncrasies—something that appeals to Questioners, who love customization. They can sometimes be convinced to try something “as an experiment.” “Why don’t you try this, you’ll find out if it works for you, and if not, you can try something else.”

Strategy of Loophole-Spotting

The Strategy of Loophole-Spotting is particularly important for Questioners, because it addresses a common stumbling block for Questioners: the invoking of loopholes to justify breaking a good habit. “I should exercise.” “But it’s too cold outside.” “Do my workout inside.” “But I have too much work and that takes precedence over exercise.”

OBLIGER

Strategy of Accountability (most important for Obligers)

All Four Tendencies (even, under certain circumstances, Rebels) find accountability to be useful for developing habits, but Obligers absolutely require structures of external accountability. They need oversight, deadlines, and consequences, and the involvement of accountability partners, such as coaches, accountability groups, trainers, health navigators, friends, or their own children. Obligers often feel a powerful sense of obligation to be good role models. They can often do something for someone else that they can’t do for themselves: “Once my baby was born, I had to quit smoking.”

Strategy of Monitoring

Monitoring supports accountability, and the more Obligers monitor their behavior, the more easily accountability will attach.

Strategy of Other People

Because of the weight imposed by outer expectations, Obligers—and the people around Obligers—must take careful note of the influence of other people, for good or ill.

Strategy of Treats

All of us should use the Strategy of Treats; when we give more to ourselves, we can ask more from ourselves. Because Obligers may fall into Obliger-rebellion when they feel burned out or exploited, it’s important that they get treats as a way to energize themselves. Remember, a treat is different from a reward! Rewards are very, very tricky to use correctly. Stick with treats!

REBEL

Strategy of Identity (most important for Rebels)

For Rebels, the most effective habit-change strategy is the Strategy of Identity. Because Rebels place great value on being true to themselves, they can embrace a habit if they view it as a way to express their identity.

 Strategy of Clarity

The Strategy of Clarity works for Rebels, because it focuses on why a habit might have personal value for them. The more Rebels think about what they want, and why they want it, the more effectively they pursue it.

Strategy of Convenience

Instead of trying to commit to scheduling a habit, Rebels often do habit-behaviors as soon as they feel like it.

Strategy of Other People

The Strategy of Other People is also a useful strategy for Rebels to consider; Rebels love doing things differently from other people. They do an obscure kind of yoga, run barefoot, exercise late at night.

Note: Rebels tend to resist if you ask or tell them to do anything. It’s very important—but challenging—to avoid setting off their spirit of resistance. Also, many of the 21 strategies that work well for other Tendencies typically don’t work for Rebels: for instance, Strategies of Scheduling, Accountability, Monitoring, or Rewards.

From Better Than Before: The 21 Strategies for Habit Change

  1. The Four Tendencies (subject of my forthcoming book, The Four Tendencies)
  2. Distinctions (what works for other people may not work for you)
  3. Monitoring
  4. Foundation
  5. Scheduling (this is often counter-productive for Rebels)
  6. Accountability (Obligers! This is YOUR STRATEGY)
  7. First Steps (be on the look out for opportunities to harness this powerful strategy)
  8. Clean Slate (this strategy is powerful, but only available at certain times)
  9. Lightning Bolt (it’s frustrating–this is a strategy that happens to you; you can’t invoke it)
  10. Abstaining (this strategy works extremely well for some people, and not at all for others)
  11. Convenience (this is the most universal strategy)
  12. Inconvenience (twin of Convenience)
  13. Safeguards
  14. Loophole-Spotting (this strategy is hilarious to study)
  15. Distractions
  16. Reward (beware! this is a very, very tricky strategy to apply effectively)
  17. Treats (this is definitely the most fun strategy to follow)
  18. Pairing
  19. Clarity
  20. Identity (it took me a long time to realize the power of this strategy)
  21. Other People (never overlook this strategy)

My Best Advice for Graduates: 12 Tips for A Happy Life

It’s graduation season.

I’m particularly aware of this, because my daughter Eliza is graduating from high school in two weeks. The days are long, but the years are short.

I’m trying to hold back the urge to follow her around the apartment giving her little bits of advice and wisdom. To relieve my mind, here’s what I would tell her, or anyone graduating from high school, college, or graduate school:

1. Know yourself

Something that’s clearer to me every day is that there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution for building a happy, healthy, and productive life. You have to know yourself: your temperament, your interests, your values. For instance…

 

The better we know ourselves, the more readily we can construct a life that will work for us.

2. Beware of drift.

“Drift” is the decision we make by not deciding, or by making a decision that unleashes consequences for which we don’t take responsibility.

You go to medical school because both your parents are doctors. You get married because all your friends are getting married. You take a job because someone offers you that job. You want the respect of the people around you, or you want to avoid a fight or a bout of insecurity, or you don’t know what else to do, so you take the path of least resistance.

The word “drift” has overtones of laziness or ease. Not true! Drift is often disguised by a huge amount of effort and perseverance. For me, law school was drift, and it was hard every step of the way, from the LSAT to my clerkship with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to the New York Bar exam. In the end, I’m happy I did go to law school — and that’s another tricky thing about drift. Sometimes drift does make you happy. But don’t count on it.

One of my drift-related Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” And here’s another one: “Approval from the people we admire is sweet, but it’s not enough to be the foundation of a happy life.”

One of the problems of drift is that we try to deny we’re drifting. To see if you’re drifting, take this quiz.

3. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I cribbed this from Voltaire, and I remind myself of it often.

I can’t let the perfect, fantasy Gretchen crowd out the actual, real Gretchen.

I remind myself that the 20-minute walk I take is better than the 3-mile run I never start; having friends over for take-out is better than never having people to an elegant dinner party.

4. Write (and re-write) your own set of personal commandments.

One of the most challenging—and most helpful and fun—tasks that I did as part of my Happiness Project was to write my Twelve Personal Commandments. These aren’t specific resolutions, like “make my bed,” but the overarching principles by which I try to live my life.

I think this is a great exercise — to distill your core values and hopes for yourself into a succinct list, so that they’re very clearly in your mind. And then you can re-visit them periodically, so you can update them as you grow older and your life changes.

As an example, here are my Twelve Personal Commandments:

1. Be Gretchen.
2. Let it go.
3. Act the way I want to feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out.
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.

5. Identify the problem.

This idea seems so obvious, but it has been the one of my most important insights. Now I’ve disciplined myself to ask, “What’s bugging me? Why is something not working? What’s the problem here?”

A friend hated her law job so much that she was ready to quit. But when she “identified the problem,” she realized she actually hated her commute. She started listening to audio-books, and her life improved dramatically.

Usually there isn’t such an easy, dramatic solution, but nevertheless, it astonishes me how often it works.

I could never get myself to hang up my coat, and when I “identified the problem,” I realized that I didn’t like putting things on hangers. I added six hooks to our closet door — and problem solved.

6. Take care of your body: exercise regularly, get enough sleep. 

I’ve done hundreds of happiness and habit interviews from successful, creative people. Almost all of them mention the importance of a regular exercise routine — and also that they wish they had started this habit sooner. They also frequently mention the importance of getting enough sleep.

Our physical experience always colors our emotional and intellectual experience. If we’re feeling exhausted or sluggish, it’s hard to be happy and productive. Get enough sleep, and get some exercise, and you’ll find it much easier to be happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative.

7. Don’t expect to be motivated by motivation. 

I really dislike the word “motivation.” I try never to use it. And here’s why: People use the term to describe their desire for a particular outcome (“I’m really motivated to lose weight”) as well as their reasons for actually acting in a certain way (“I go to the gym because I’m motivated to exercise”). Desire and action are mixed up in a very confusing way.

People often tell me, “Yes, I’m very motivated to achieve this aim,” but when I press, it turns out that while they passionately wish they could achieve an outcome, they aren’t doing anything about it. So what does it mean when they say they’re “motivated?” No idea.

In fact, people aren’t motivated by motivation.

Expert advice often focuses on motivation, by telling people that they just need more motivation to follow through. This may work in a certain way, for certain people (see below), but not for everyone.

The bad result of this advice is that some people spend a lot of time whipping themselves into a frenzy of thinking how much they want a certain outcome, as if desire will drive behavior. And it rarely does.

Instead of thinking about motivation, I argue that we should think about aims, and then take concrete, practical, realistic steps to take us closer to our aims.

Instead of thinking, “I want to lose weight so badly,” think instead about the concrete steps to take, “I’ll bring lunch from home,” “I won’t use the vending machine,” “I won’t eat fast food,” “I’ll quit sugar,” “I’ll cook dinner at home at least four nights a week,” “I’ll go to the farmer’s market on Saturdays, to load up on great produce.”

Of course, in my book Better Than Before, I argue that the great thing about habits is that you don’t need to feel “motivated!”

In my forthcoming book, The Four Tendencies, I do talk about how thinking about reasons for action can help some people to act, and how desire does help some people to act — but that’s not the same as motivation.

For Upholders and Questioners, thinking about reasons helps.

For Rebels, thinking about desire helps.

For Obligers, outer accountability is the crucial element. What does this mean? It means that Obligers are the least likely to be helped by thinking about “motivation.” And guess what? They’re the Tendency that talks most about motivation! They keep trying to amp up their motivation, and then they get frustrated because that doesn’t work. Nope. Obligers should focus on systems of outer accountability.

We really can’t expect to be motivated by motivation.

8. Give time and energy to keeping relationships strong.

Ancient philosophers and modern scientists agree: the most essential key to happiness is strong relationships with other people.

We need enduring, intimate bonds; we need to feel like we belong; we need to be able to confide; we need to be able to get and give support.

Anything that tends to deepen or broaden relationships is likely to boost happiness. Things like:

  • attending reunions
  • going to weddings
  • remembering birthdays
  • keeping up a group chat with your friends who are spread across the world
  • starting a book club
  • making friends with the friends of your friends (this is called “triadic closure”)
  • having a standing yearly date to get together — for a few years out of college, my friends all got together for an Ides of March weekend. Somehow, we stopped, and I’ve always regretted that. Along those lines…
  • if someone’s important to you, make concrete plans to see them; remember, something that can happen at any time often happens at no time.

9. Ask yourself, “Whom do I envy?”

Envy is a very unpleasant emotion, and we often don’t even want to admit to ourselves that we’re feeling envious.

But negative emotions play a very important role in a happy life, because they warn us that something needs to change. When we envy someone, it’s a sign that that person has something that we wish we had for ourselves. And that’s useful to know.

When I was considering switching from law to writing, I noticed that when I read in my college magazine about people who had great law careers, I felt a mild interest; when I read about people who had great writing careers, I felt sick with envy. That was an important clue.

10. Remember, everyone makes mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes; it’s inevitable. And if you’re not failing sometimes, you’re not trying hard enough.

11. Know your “tell.”

In gambling, a tell is a change in behavior that reveals your inner state. Gamblers look for tells as clues about whether other players are holding good or bad hands.

And it’s common for people to have a  “tell” in everyday life, too.

For instance, my “tell” is that when I’m feeling anxious or worried, I re-read books aimed at a younger and younger audience. Under all circumstances, I love children’s literature, and read it often, but when I’m reading these books as an anxiety tell, I inevitably re-read instead of reading books I’ve never read before. I want the coziness, the familiarity, the high quality of a book that I know I love.

Self-knowledge is one of the greatest challenges for happiness and good habits. Why is it hard to know that I’m feeling anxious — don’t I feel it? Why is it so hard to know myself? It seems like nothing should be easier and more obvious than to know ourselves – but it’s not.

Recognizing and watching for your “tell” can help you manage yourself better.

12. Collect your own Secrets of Adulthood.

For years, I’ve been collecting my “Secrets of Adulthood,” which are the scraps of wisdom I’ve managed to grasp as I’ve become an adult. It’s fun — and helpful — to keep track of these.

For instance…

  • Outer order contributes to inner calm.
  • Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
  • Over-the-counter medication is surprisingly effective.
  • Self-regard isn’t selfish.
  • Most decisions don’t require extensive research.
  • Things often get harder before they get easier.
  • It’s easier to keep up than catch up.
  • Soap and water removes most stains.
  • We can’t make others change, but when we change, a relationship changes.
  • Don’t let yourself fall into “empty”: eat when you’re hungry, put gas in the car, keep some cash on hand.

What advice would you give to a graduate? Or what useful advice did you receive, when you were graduating?

Want to View the World with Fresh Eyes? 13 Tips to See More Clearly.

I’ve recently developed an obsession with color — what a gorgeous, fascinating topic! It makes me so happy to learn about color.

One reason I love studying color is that it helps me notice the world. I tend to walk around very absent-mindedly; I hardly see anything around me. For me to be present in the moment, and to connect with the world, I need a hook.

Looking at colors is one great hook, and there are many others, too:

  1. Notice colors — I push myself to notice the color of the sky; the contrast between the orange cone and the gray sidewalk.
  2. Look in a mirror — things look different in a mirror.
  3. Look at a picture of an object. Jamaica Kincaid wrote “Why is a picture of something real eventually more exciting than the thing itself?” A question that haunts me. Related…
  4. Look at an object alongside a picture of it. I heard about this strategy as a way of appreciating art more. Buy a postcard of an artwork, then study the artwork while you hold up the postcard. I’m dying to try this.
  5. Pretend to be a journalist — journalists notice things in a different way. Similarly…
  6. Pretend to be a tourist. Look at the shop windows! How people line up for the bus! What are people wearing?
  7. Draw — this one doesn’t appeal to me, but many people swear by it.
  8. Go someplace new — I’ve lived in my New York City neighborhood for more than a decade, and still I sometimes stumble onto a street I swear I’ve never walked before.
  9. Return to a familiar place after a long time away — go back to your old school; stop into the grocery store where you shopped when you lived in your old house. Fascinating.
  10. Imagine that you have guests coming to stay for the weekend — a great way to see your home in a new way. Along the same lines…
  11. Imagine that you will sell your house — you see it through the eyes of a judgmental stranger
  12. Notice contrasts, when two worlds are juxtaposed –school-children on a sidewalk in front of a business;  a horse-and-buggy clopping down the highway
  13. Look with a child — it’s such a sentimental cliche to say it, but children really do see the world with fresh eyes.

What hooks do you use to help yourself see the world more vividly?

7 Types of Loneliness (and Why It Matters)

One major challenge within happiness is loneliness.  The more I’ve learned about happiness, the more I’ve come to believe that loneliness is a common and important obstacle to consider.

To be happy, we need intimate bonds; we need to be able to confide, we need to feel like we belong, we need to be able to get and give support. In fact, strong relationships are key — perhaps the key — to a happy life.

Of course, being alone and being lonely aren’t the same. Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, restorative.

It seems to me that there are several types of loneliness. Of course, not everyone experiences loneliness in the situations described — for instance, not everyone wants a romantic partner. But for some people, the lack of certain kinds of relationships brings loneliness.

Once we’ve pinpointed the particular kind of loneliness we’re experiencing, it may be easier to spot ways to address it.

Here are some types I’ve identified — what have I overlooked?

7 Types of Loneliness

1. New-situation loneliness

You’ve moved to a new city where you don’t know anyone, or you’ve started a new job, or you’ve started at a school full of unfamiliar faces. You’re lonely.

2. I’m-different loneliness

You’re in a place that’s not unfamiliar, but you feel different from other people in an important way that makes you feel isolated. Maybe your faith is really important to you, and the people around you don’t share that — or vice versa. Maybe everyone loves doing outdoor activities, but you don’t — or vice versa. It feels hard to connect with others about the things you find important. Or maybe you’re just hit with the loneliness that hits all of us sometimes — the loneliness that’s part of the human condition.

3. No-sweetheart loneliness

Even if you have lots of family and friends, you feel lonely because you don’t have the intimate attachment of a romantic partner. Or maybe you have a partner, but you don’t feel a deep connection to that person.

4. No-animal loneliness

Many people have a deep need to connect with animals. If this describes you, you’re sustained by these relationships in a way that human relationships don’t replace. While I love my dog Barnaby, I don’t feel this myself — but many people feel like something important is missing if they don’t have a dog or cat (or less conveniently, a horse) in their lives.

5. No-time-for-me loneliness

Sometimes you’re surrounded by people who seem friendly enough, but they don’t want to make the jump from friendly to friends. Maybe they’re too busy with their own lives, or they have lots of friends already, so while you’d like a deeper connection, they don’t seem interested. Or maybe your existing friends have entered a new phase that means they no longer have time for the things you all used to do — everyone has started working very long hours, or has started  family, so that your social scene has changed.

6. Untrustworthy-friends loneliness

Sometimes, you get in a situation where you begin to doubt whether your friends are truly well-intentioned, kind, and helpful. You’re “friends” with people but don’t quite trust them. An important element of friendship is the ability to confide and trust, so if that’s missing, you may feel lonely, even if you have fun with your friends.

7. Quiet-presence loneliness

Sometimes, you may feel lonely because you miss having someone else’s quiet presence. You may have an active social circle at work, or have plenty of friends and family, but you miss having someone to hang out with at home — whether that would mean living with a roommate, a family member, or a sweetheart. Just someone who’s fixing a cup of coffee in the next room, or reading on the sofa.

If you read this list, and you’re thinking, “Yes, I do feel lonely — so what the heck do I do about it?” you might find this post useful: Lonely? 5 Habits to Consider to Combat Loneliness. Or this: Feeling Lonely? Consider Trying These 7 Strategies. (These posts are different from each other, even though the titles sound similar.)

It’s important to realize why we feel lonely, because only then can we see how we might address it. If you’re no-time-for-me lonely, for instance, maybe a solution would be to work with people on a project, where you’d be doing an endeavor together, on something you’ve all made time for. My mother once noted — and I think it’s very true — it’s easier to make friends when you’re working on a project together.

Loneliness is a major factor in unhappiness, so it’s an important area to tackle, if you’re working on making yourself happier.

Want to learn more? When I researched loneliness, I was very surprised by what I found, which I wrote about here: Some counter-intuitive facts about loneliness.

If you want to read more deeply on the subject of loneliness, I highly recommend two books: John Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, and Emily White, Lonely, a memoir about the author’s own experiences and research into loneliness. Also, in my books The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, I write a lot about how to build and strengthen relationships.

One of the keys — maybe the key — to happiness is strong connections to other people. The lack of these bonds, even temporarily, is a major happiness stumbling block.

Have you found any good ways to understand and deal with loneliness?

Do You Hate to Rush? 11 Tips for Getting Ready Faster in the Morning.

One small but annoying daily challenge? Getting ready each morning.

I very much dislike rushing or feeling pressed for time, and fervently agree with Thoreau, who wrote in Walden, “I love a broad margin to my life.”

By figuring out easy, quick ways to make it faster to head out the door, we can give ourselves a bigger margin of time.

Need some ideas? Here are eleven simple morning-related habits that may make your life easier.

11 Simple Morning Habits to Make Your Life Easier

  1. Put your alarm clock across the room, so you have to get out of bed to turn it off. No more snooze button!
  2. The night before, set an alarm to tell you that it’s time to go to bed. It’s a lot easier to get going in the morning if you’ve had enough sleep the night before. Also…
  3. Set an alarm to remind you when you’ve spent enough time in the shower.
  4. Buy several pairs of the same socks, so you never have to hunt for a mate.
  5. Decide your outfit while you brush your teeth to go to bed the night before, so you don’t have to take the time for inner debate in the morning. Or even better…
  6. Give yourself a work uniform, so you have very few choices to make when dressing. (I loved this piece by an art director,  “Why I Wear the Exact Same Thing to Work Every Day.”)
  7. Always put your keys, wallet, sunglasses, and cell phone away in the same place, so you don’t have to spend any time hunting for an important possession.  (Can’t find something? Here are 8 tips for finding misplaced objects. Bizarrely, I’ve found, these tips really do work.)
  8. The night before, gather everything you need for the next day–papers in your briefcase, exercise clothes in the gym bag, the book you’re returning to a friend at work.
  9. Always keep gas in the car.
  10. Drink the office coffee instead of stopping at a coffee place on your way to work.
  11. Convince everyone in your household to follow these same tips.

How about you? What tips and tricks do you use, to help yourself get ready faster each morning?