“Oddly, Though, Lists Are Reassuring.”

“Oddly, though, lists are reassuring. We become aware of this if we scrupulously follow a recipe, which is essentially a list of ingredients and actions; but if we give this ‘list’ too much importance, we leave no room for the imagination.”

—Jean-Claude Ellena, The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur

I’m obsessed with the delights of the sense of smell, which led me to a much greater interest in perfume. Jean-Claude Ellena is one of the major figures in the creation of perfume. The Diary of a Nose is his book about his process.

I’m very attracted to any kind of list, particularly to-do lists. They can be freeing, but also constraining — like so many things.

Trying to Keep a Resolution? Don’t Fall into This Common Trap.

Many of us make resolutions — at the New Year, and throughout the year.  For the most part, these resolutions involve habits; we want to make or break some important habit (read the Essential Seven here).

To my surprise, as I was writing Better Than Before, I learned that while it’s hard to change habits, it’s also surprisingly easy to change habits.  The secret is to know how to set yourself up for success.

For instance, one important way to set yourself up for success is to imagine how you might fail. What are the temptations, the stumbling blocks? When have you struggled in the past?

Also, it’s important to be very wary of loopholes.

When we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes, for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation. However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps reject them.

Now, we’re all adults, and we can always mindfully decide to make an exception to our good habits. (Read here about my friend’s hilarious pie policy.) But that’s not what a loophole is. A loophole is a way to avoid making an exception, to get a free pass or an excuse.  But in the end, the loophole just ends up weakening, or perhaps ending, the habit we’re trying to create.

I’ve posted about each of the ten categories. If you want easily to scroll through them all, start at #10, because each post includes a link to the previous day.
1. False choice loophole “I can’t do this, because I’m so busy doing that” – this is one I often use, myself. I can’t go to the dentist; too busy writing.

2. Moral licensing loophole  — “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this”

3. Tomorrow loophole — “It’s okay to skip today, because I’m going to do this tomorrow” – “I can bust the budget in December, because I’ll be so frugal in January”

4. Lack of control loophole — “I can’t help myself” – “They served donuts at the meeting”

5. Planning to fail loophole — “I’m going to buy some scotch in case anyone stops by”

6. “This doesn’t count” loophole – “I’m on vacation” “I’m sick” “It’s the weekend”

7. Questionable assumption loophole — “The label says it’s healthy”

8. Concern for others loophole — “I can’t do this because it might make other people uncomfortable”

9. Fake self-actualization loophole – “You only live once! Embrace the moment!”

10. One-coin loophole“What difference does it make if I break my habit this one time?”

Which one is most popular, do you think? 1, 2, and 3 are very popular. Also 4. And 5 is more common that I first thought. Also 6, 7 of course, 8 comes up a lot, 9, and also 10. Look at that. They’re all popular!

As Benjamin Franklin wryly commented in his Autobiography, “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” We can almost always find a reason, a loophole, that excuses us from following a habit. But when we spot the loophole, we can perhaps reject the desire to let ourselves off the hook.

What loophole do you invoke most often, to get yourself out of a habit that you’re trying to keep?

P.S. Do you get the pun in this post’s illustration? I had fun with that.

A Fun Way to Shape the New Year: Pick a One-Word Theme.

I love New Year’s resolutions – and I’m not the only one. Some 44% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions.

There’s one kind of resolution that I particularly love: identifying one idea, often summarized in just one word, as an overarching theme for the entire year.

My sister often does this kind of resolution. This year her theme is “Novel.” One year was the year of “Free Time,” another, “Hot Wheels” — that year, she got a car and started driving; she and I have both struggled with a fear of driving, which was much tougher for her, given that she lives in Los Angeles and I live in New York City. If you want to hear about my fear of driving, click here.  (Warning, non sequitur: follow my sister on Twitter, @elizabethcraft.)

Another friend of mine does the same thing. One year, I remember, was “Dark,” another was “Make.”

One year I chose “Bigger.” I have to fight the urge to simplify, to keep things manageable; this word will remind me to think big, to tolerate complications, to expect more from myself. Many people work to simplify their lives, but I struggle against the tendency to simplify too much. As Albert Einstein observed, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

This year, I’ve chosen “Upgrade.” I want to take many areas of my life to the next level. I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages, from the opening of Norman Rush’s fascinating novel, Mating.

“There was an opulent sunset. I was standing under an acacia in bloom and the words ‘shower of gold’ came into my mind, followed by a surge of feeling. I call it greed, but it was more a feeling of wanting a surplus in my life, wanting to have too much of something, for a change. I didn’t want to be a candidate anymore, not for a doctorate or anything else: I wanted to be at the next level, where things would come to me, accrue to me. It was acute.”

I love this passage because it describes a feeling that I’ve often experienced, but have never quite been able to put into words myself. Do you know this feeling of “wanting a surplus,” “wanting to have too much,” where “things would accrue to me”? My sister and I sometimes talk about “wanting to get a present in the mail,” but it’s not exactly that…

In writing Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I’ve been thinking obsessively about habits. There are lots of one-word themes that might help someone determined to master his or her her habits: Health; Finish, Rest; Free (as in “free from french fries“); Fulfillment, etc.

Have you ever tried this choose-a-theme approach? Did it help you direct your year?

I’m fascinated to get more ideas for themes. What theme or word would you pick?

Revealed! Book Club Choices for January.

Because nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

· one outstanding book about happiness or habits

· one outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature–I have a crazy passion for kidlit

· one eccentric pick–a widely admired and excellent book that I love, yes, but one that may not appeal to everyone

Shop at the wonderful Brooklyn indie WORD, BN.com, Amazon (I’m an affiliate of all three), or your favorite local bookstore. Or visit the library! Drumroll…

An outstanding book about happiness or habits:

An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An outstanding children’s book:

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

Dear Genius by Ursula Nordstrom

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

Some readers have said that they wished that I’d describe and make the case for my book choices, instead of just providing links. I’ve noticed that many times, when someone describes a book to me, I want to read it less. And often, weirdly, the better a book is, the worse it sounds.

Nevertheless, because so many readers have requested it, I’ve decided to give a bit more context for these choices in the book-club newsletter. So if you’d like to know more about why I made these selections, check there. To get that free monthly book-club newsletter, and to make sure you don’ t miss any recommendations, sign up here.

In any event, I assure you that, for all the books I choose, I love them; I’ve read them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely admired.

If you read last month’s recommendations…what did you think? What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami; Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen; and The Official Preppy Handbook edited by Lisa Birnbach. So good!

These days, I can’t talk about books without making a pitch for my own forthcoming book, Better Than Before. I love all my books equally, but I do love this book.  As I’ve mentioned before: For book publishing these days, pre-orders give a big boost to a book. If you’re inclined to buy Better Than Before, it’s a huge help to me if you order it now. You won’t be charged, of course, until the book ships.

Happy 2015, happy January, and happy reading. I’m due for a trip to the library, and I just realized that it will be closed tomorrow…

13 Suggestions for Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions.

It took me a long time to realize that what I thought of as “resolutions” could almost always be characterized as “habits.” Most often, when people want to make some kind of change in the New Year, they want to master some kind of habit. (If you want to know the Essential Seven of habits, look here.)

Since I started working on my habits for my book on habit change, Better Than Before, and since my resolutions-based happiness project, I’ve hit on many strategies to help myself stick to resolutions.

Here are just a few:

1. Be specific. Don’t resolve to “Make more friends” or “Strengthen friendships”; that’s too vague. To make more friends as part of my happiness project, I have several very concrete resolutions like: “Start a group,” “Remember birthdays,” “Say hello,” “Make plans,” “Show up,” and “No gossip.”

2. Write it down.

3. Review your resolution constantly. If your resolution is buzzing through your head, it’s easier to stick to it. I review my Resolutions Chart every night.

4. Hold yourself accountable. Tell other people about your resolution, join or form a like-minded group, score yourself on a chart (my method) — whatever works for you to make yourself feel accountable for success and failure.

5. Think big. Maybe you need a big change, a big adventure – a trip to a foreign place, a break-up, a move, a new job. Let yourself imagine anything, and plan from there.

6. Think small. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only radical change can make a difference. Just keeping your fridge cleared out could give you a real boost. Look close to home for ways to improve and grow.

7. Ask for help. Why is this so hard? But every time I ask for help, I’m amazed at how much easier my task becomes.

If you have an especially tough time keeping resolutions, if you have a pattern of making and breaking them, try these strategies:

8. Consider making only pleasant resolutions. We can make our lives happier in many ways. If you’ve been trying the boot-camp approach with no success, try resolving to “Go to more movies,” “Entertain more often,” or whatever resolutions you’d find fun to keep. Often, having more fun in our lives makes it easier to do tough things. Seeing more movies might make it easier to keep going to the gym. Remember, we must have treats!

9. Consider giving up a resolution. If you keep making and breaking a resolution, consider whether you should relinquish it entirely. Put your energy toward changes that are both realistic and helpful. Don’t let an unfulfilled resolution to lose twenty pounds or to overhaul your overgrown yard block you from making other, smaller resolutions that might give you a big happiness boost.

10. Consider keeping your resolution every day. Weirdly, it’s often easier to do something every day (exercise, post to a blog, deal with the mail, do laundry) than every few days.

11. Set a deadline.

12. Don’t give up if something interferes with your deadline.

13. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Thank you, Voltaire.  If you break your resolution today, try again tomorrow.  Although some people assume that strong feelings of guilt or shame act as safeguards to help people stick to good habits, the opposite is true. People who feel less guilt and who show compassion toward themselves in the face of failure are better able to regain self-control, while people who feel deeply guilty and full of self-blame struggle more.

What else? What are some strategies you’ve discovered, to help you stick to your New Year’s resolutions?

If you want more information along these lines, pre-order Better Than Before. The entire book is about mastering habits and keeping resolutions. Guess what? It’s easier than you think–if you do it right.