Tag Archives: productivity

“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.”

Podcast 64: Go Slow to Go Fast; What Do You Lie About; and a New Segment–the “Happiness Hack.”

It’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Update: Remember,  I’m doing weekly live videos on my Facebook Page about the podcast. I talk to viewers about questions, comments, suggestions. Any episode; don’t worry if you’re not caught up. You can watch the most recent one here or my video with our producer Henry, look here. If you want to join the conversation live, I’m doing them on Tuesdays at 1:00 pm Eastern. Join in! It’s so fun to have a chance to talk to listeners and viewers.

Many people responded to the issue of “Stop apologizing” which we talked about in episode 61. If you want to watch the Facebook video where we talk about apologizing, it’s here.

Try This at Home: Go slow to go fast. Lots of proverbs for this! Make haste slowly. Take your time, especially when you’re in a hurry.

Know Yourself Better: What do you lie about? Elizabeth and I confess what we lie about.

Happiness Hack: A new segment! I explain how I identified the problem — we have very little storage space in our bathroom — and thought of a solution. A toilet paper stand, so we don’t have to store spare rolls in the one crowded cabinet.  If you’re curious to see the one I bought, it’s the InterDesign Free Standing Toilet Paper Holder. Yes, it’s a trivial and even silly item, but I have to say, it really does add a little bit of happiness to my life.

filofaxmineGretchen’s Demerit: I love my paper calendar — which I keep in my beloved Filofax — but I’m scrawling in it so messily that I can’t read it.

Elizabeth’s Gold Star: Elizabeth gets herself back into the routine of going to her weekly high-intensity strength-training session.

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1pixHappier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #64

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10 Things I’ve Learned in 10 Years of Blogging

Unbelievable! I just hit my tenth anniversary for this blog. I can’t believe it. The days are long, but the years are short. 

Certainly, when I started, I had no idea that I was embarking on an project that would become such a big part of my day, my identity, my writing career, and my relationships. In fact, I remember thinking, “Yes, I’m stressed out about writing these first posts, but that’s okay, because no one will ever read them.

That first post, “The Blog Begins,” is here, if you’re curious.

Here are ten things I’ve learned from ten years of blogging:

1. It’s often easier to do something every day than some days.

This sounds counter-intuitive, but I’ve found it to be very true. I write on this site most days, so I don’t debate with myself, “Today, tomorrow? I wrote last week, can I take this week off?” I know I have to write on my blog, so I do. In Better Than Before, I explore this phenomenon more.

2. People like to learn in different ways.

I’m a writer, and I like to provide ideas in text — and no surprise, that’s also the way I learn best. But I’ve found that some people prefer videos, some people prefer audio, some people prefer to get email, some people prefer social media. To reach a wide range of people, we have to think about all of that.

3. People are more wildly creative, insightful, and articulate than I could possibly imagine.

I’m constantly blown away by the comments I get from readers and listeners. Such fascinating stories, such astute comments.  I feel so lucky to live at a time when technology makes this kind of engagement so easy, because it has has deepened my understanding of my subjects immeasurably. To take just one tiny example, when I asked people, “What’s the motto of your Tendency?’ I got brilliant, hilarious answers. My favorite: “You can’t make me, and neither can I” for the Rebels.

4. It’s fun to have a consistent record — any kind of record — of the past.

I often look back to see what I wrote on my site on this date, some years ago. It’s so fun!  I think this is why my One-Sentence Journal: a Five-Year Record has proved so popular. Most people won’t keep a blog, or write long journal entries, but writing one sentence seems manageable and fun, and is enough to bring back memories.

5.For creativity, it’s better to pour out ideas rather than to dole them out with a teaspoon.

When I started blogging — and I confess, I still have this thought, sometimes, ten years later — I’d think, “This is a great idea. I should hold it back, so in case I ever run out of ideas, I’ll have something in reserve.” No! I have to trust in myself, trust that I’ll get more ideas. The more I do, the more I can do.  It’s one of my Personal Commandments: Spend out.

6. As a writer, the biggest challenge is to make readers aware that a book exists.

There’s so much to read, watch, and listen to these days — how does a person hear about a particular book? I’ve found that it’s very helpful to have my own way to connect with an audience that’s interested in my subjects.

7. An atmosphere of growth makes me happier.

In my Eight Splendid Truths about Happiness, the First Splendid Truth is:  To be happier, we must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. We’re happier when we’re growing: when we’re learning something, helping someone, improving something, making things better. With my blog, and also social media and my podcast, I have the feeling of learning new things, engaging in new ways, learning new skills, meeting new people, adding new identities to my sense of myself. Along those lines…

8. Novelty and challenge make me happier.

When I was writing The Happiness Project, I needed to use myself as a human guinea pig for the notion, often suggested by scientist, that novelty and challenge make people happier. I thought, “Well, that might be true for most people, but not for me.” To test the idea, I decided to start a blog — which seemed very novel and challenging to me. I figured I’d give it a short for three or four weeks, decide that it didn’t work, and abandon it — the way I abandoned my gratitude journal. But no! I realized that even for someone like me, novelty and challenge did make me happier. Of course, they also gave me moment of anxiety, frustration, and anger, but those feeling paid off. If you want to read about this, check out the chapter for March, “Aim Higher,” in The Happiness Project.

9. It’s true, as research suggests, that we’re happier when we have many aspects to our identity.

Having many identities protects us: if you get fired from your job, you can think, “People think I’m doing a great job at the church finance committee”; if you can’t play tennis anymore, you can think, “Now I have more time to garden.” Adding the identity of “blogger” (and then “podcaster”) to my professional identity was enormously energizing, interesting, and reassuring.

10. Don’t get it perfect, get it going.

The longest journey starts with a single step. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. All these proverbs are true. When I was starting this blog, I was paralyzed by the desire to do everything right — and there were so many decisions to make! Finally, I decided, “I’m going to talk to a few smart people with blogs, and do whatever they do. I can change things later, if I want.” That was a great way to get started. It’s one of my Secrets of Adulthood: Most decisions don’t require extensive research.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary, I’ve pulled together a short e-book that features my favorite posts from the last decade. It was so much fun to choose what pieces to include.

You can order it here, for $1.99.

Sidenote: I just realized that my blog anniversary is the same day as the wedding anniversary for both my parents and my in-laws. That seems auspicious! Both couples have been married for more than fifty years.

Agree, Disagree? “Forming New Habits Can Actually Be Fun.”

Interview: Chris Bailey.

I learned about Chris’s fascinating work through a mutual blogger friend, the wonderful Neil Pasricha. Chris has a blog, and he’s written a book about the project he did, to spend a year experimenting on himself to figure out to be more…productive. So of course I was intrigued! His book, The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy, recently hit the shelves.

It was very interesting for me to hear his views, because in so many ways we took different approaches to changing our habits — which is a great example of my core belief about habits, that to change our habits, we must all figure out what works for us. For instance, I changed my eating habits completely, overnight; for Chris, making small, incremental changes worked. And of course I abandoned meditation! Which is his most essential habit.

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

Chris: Like you, I see forming new habits as a way of leveling up to become more productive automatically. Of course, habits take energy and willpower to form. But when we form the right habits for the right reasons, all of that effort becomes worthwhile.

So much of my work focuses on which habits make us the most productive. In the short-run, productive habits can be a challenge to implement, but in the long-run they pay incredible dividends.

What’s the one habit you couldn’t live without?

By a wide margin, my daily meditation ritual. Right next to the desk in my office, I keep a meditation cushion, and meditate for 30 minutes every day—I’ve had this practice for years, since starting university.

Hardly any habit allows me to become more productive than my daily meditation ritual—despite how strange that may sound on the surface.

I think the connection between meditation and productivity is simple. Meditation has been shown to help you bring more focus to what’s in front of you in the moment, and resist distractions and temptations, and this lets you get the same amount of stuff done in less time. I’m personally not a fan of the word “efficiency” as far as productivity is concerned; I think it reduces it down to something that feels cold and corporate. But there’s really no better word here: when you bring more focus to your work, you accomplish more in less time. Meditation helps you spend your time more efficiently. You can easily make back the time you spend meditating in increased productivity, especially if your work requires a lot of brainpower.

I don’t think productivity is about doing more, faster—I see it as spending time on the right things, and working more intentionally, so you can accomplish more. This is what makes meditation, and mindfulness for that matter, so powerful. I wouldn’t trade the practice for anything!

What other habits are most important to you—that you’ve found indispensable for your creativity and productivity?

One of the most exciting parts about my productivity project was how I got the chance to play around with so many habits, to see which ones led me to accomplish more (regardless of how difficult they were to implement at the time!) On top of my meditation ritual, a few I wouldn’t give up for anything are:

  • Defining three daily intentions. My favorite daily productivity ritual is to, every morning, step back and consider what three main things I’ll want to have accomplished by the time the workday is done. It’s a simple ritual, but setting these intentions gives me a guiding light for when $%* hits the fan throughout the day, which it often does. It also lets me step back, if only for a few minutes, to think about what’s important. I see intention behind our actions as like the wood behind the arrow. I maintain a to-do list, too, but this simple rule helps me work that much more intentionally, and flip of autopilot mode for a few minutes to consider what’s most important.
  • Disconnecting from the internet. Whenever I want to hunker down on something important, I almost always disconnect from the internet. This was hard at first, but the habit has paid incredible productivity dividends with time. I also wrote most of my book while disconnected from the internet, which I think is one of the main reasons I was able to ship it six weeks ahead of schedule! One study found that we spend an average of 47% of our time on the internet procrastinating. I’ve found totally disconnecting to be another great way to accomplish more in less time.
  • Single-tasking. Doing just one thing at a time is a less stimulating way of working compared to multitasking. But the research on multitasking is conclusive: we totally suck at it, and multitasking invariably makes us less productive. I don’t see productivity as how busy we are—I see it as how much we accomplish. That’s what we’re left with at the end of the day. Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you’re productive, and this is especially the case with multitasking. Even though I prefer to multitask, I work on just one thing at a time most of the day, because the practice lets me get so much more done. It’s not even close!


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

That forming new habits can actually be fun. Like so many people, as I’ve tried to shoehorn habits into my life in the past, I just became harder on myself in the process. But that idea runs counter to why we form new habits in the first place: most of us make new habits to turn ourselves into a better, more productive human beings, and being hard on ourselves in the process runs counter to that. The kinder I’ve become on myself while forming new habits, the more they’ve stuck. I’ve had some fun with this, and over time have started to do things like:

  • Reward myself, usually with a tasty meal of some sort when reaching a milestone with my goals.
  • Find social support when making big changes (like finding workout buddies).
  • Shrink habits so they’re not as intimidating. For example, if the thought of working out puts me off, I’ll shrink how long I’ll go for until I’m no longer intimidated by the habit. (E.g. Can I work out for 60 minutes today? Naw, the though of it puts me off. 45 minutes? Nope, still not going to do it. 30 mins? That actually isn’t so bad—I’ll only hit the gym for 30 minutes today.)
  • Making an actual plan to form a habit, so I’m not trying to shoehorn it into my life. I realize that this is pretty lame advice, because on some level everyone knows they should do this, but yet hardly anyone does. For me, the only habits that have stuck have been the ones I’ve thought through in detail. But this could also be because I’m a pretty big Questioner 🙂


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

My biggest weakness is definitely food—out of all of the things in the world, food is one of my favorites. From the time I wake up to the time I go to bed, I’m thinking about it. I’m even thinking about it as we’re chatting right now. But in my experimentation I’ve found that what we eat can have a profound affect on our energy levels and productivity—especially when we eat too much, or we eat too much processed food. (Most of us have experienced that feeling of having almost no energy in the afternoon after a massive, unhealthy lunch.)

The best way I’ve found to change my habits around food that were so ingrained—like eating too much, eating too much processed food, and eating when I was stressed out— has been to chip away at these habits over time.

In my opinion, the best diet in the world is the exact one you have already, but with one small, incremental improvement. Making incremental improvements is one of the best ways I’ve found to become healthier; because the changes are small, they won’t intimidate you once your initial motivation runs out. I’ve found this to especially be the case with habits so ingrained. Changes become habits so much faster when they’re not intimidating!

One of my favorite quotes is from Bill Gates, who said that we have the tendency to “overestimate what we can do in one year, and underestimate what we can do in ten years.” I think this holds true for our habits, and our productivity, too. Over time, incremental improvements add up.