Do You Wish You Spent Less Time Watching “Potato-Chip News”?

I just read Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Lose Ourselves and Find Ourselves. It’s a series of essays by a practicing psychotherapist about some of his observations about human nature.

In his discussion of one patient’s experiences, Grosz observes,

There are various ways to circumvent depressed, anxious feelings…It’s…not uncommon to use some large scale calamity, or someone else’s personal disaster–the newspapers are full of both–to distract oneself from one’s own destructive impulses.

I was particularly struck by this passage, because I’ve noticed the same pattern, in the realm of habits.

When trying to stick to a good habit, many people are challenged by the dangerous allure of “potato-chip news.”

Potato-chip news” is news that’s repetitive, requires little effort to absorb, and is consumable in massive quantities: true crime, natural disasters, political punditry, celebrity and sports gossip, or endless photographs of beautiful houses, food, clothes, or people.

Its information is usually sensationalized to carry the maximum emotional effect—to make people feel shocked, frightened, envious, outraged, insecure, or indignant.

Most of us enjoy potato-chip news occasionally—to track the Oscars or the Olympics, for instance. But those who regularly spend hours indulging in it may find they’re angry with themselves for devoting so much time to it, and distraught by what they’re watching, yet unable to step away.

I hadn’t thought about the fact that perhaps people use potato-chip news as a way to manage anxiety or other negative emotions, but that rings true to me. What do you think?

Potato-chip news matters for habits for two reasons:

First, many people consider spending excessive time on potato-chip
news as a bad habit in itself.

Also, it can inflame other bad habits, because people get so agitated by it that they lose self-command and turn to bad habits for comfort. One person wrote, “I was so worried about the election that I ate half a pan of peanut-butter brownies in front of CNN.” It’s important to follow the presidential election, of course, but still, we need to deal with remote events in ways that don’t derail our attempts to manage ourselves.

As always, for habits, it’s important to make sure that the things that we do to make ourselves feel better don’t end up making us feel worse.

So the question becomes: what do you do if you find yourself attracted potato-chip news, in a way that’s not helpful?

In Better Than Before, I identify all the strategies that can be deployed to master our habits, and in this situation, the Strategy of Distraction can be of particular help.  By mindfully shifting attention away from potato-chip news, people can break free from its time-sucking, de-energizing  grip.

You can read a novel, play with a dog, do Sudoku, anything to pull away from the screen. Sometimes people limit themselves to written news accounts (which tend to have more information and less sensation) or establish time limits, to manage their desire to consume potato-chip news.

How about you? Do you feel the appeal of this kind of news? If so, have you found any good ways to manage it?

5 Tips for Becoming a Better Listener

I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Bernstein‘s work in the Wall Street Journal, and she wrote an interesting piece, How Well Are You Listening? We’re naturally bad listeners, even with loved ones; steps to avoid burn-out.

Here are some of the key steps she outlines, for being a better listener:

1. Look for hints that a person wants to talk — and signal your willingness to listen. My husband rarely wants to “talk,” but when he does, I put my book down flat in my lap, to show that I’m paying close attention (and to prevent myself from sneaking a look at the page).

2. Let the other person explain what’s on his or her mind. Acknowledge the reality of someone else’s feelings. For me, this is a key step. When I started to acknowledge the reality of other people’s feelings, especially the negative feelings of my children, I saw a major improvement in communication.  I remind myself: don’t deny feelings like anger, irritation, fear, or reluctance; instead, articulate the other person’s point of view. “You don’t feel like going.” “You’re bored.” “Usually, you enjoy this, but right now you’re not in the mood.”  This is harder than it sounds.

3. Encourage the person to elaborate by asking about open-ended questions, making listening noises (turns out these are called “minimal encouragers”), sitting in a way that shows attentiveness, making eye contact.

4. Paraphrase what someone said, to show that you’ve understood his or her point.

5. Ask questions and listen to try to help work on a possible solution — but don’t rush to fix things.

When it comes to the issue of listening well, the best book I’ve ever read on the subject is framed as a parenting book, but the advice it contains applies equally well to adults. I love this book: Faber and Mazlish’s How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. I’ve read it several times.

But speaking of books, here’s a mistake I find myself making over and over: when someone’s trying to explain some problem to me, I respond by making suggestions of books for that person to read.

Practically everything in life reminds me of something I’ve read, and when people are in a difficult situation, I’m often flooded with thoughts about relevant passages I’ve read, or books that might be useful.

For instance, a friend just told me about her divorce, and I kept saying things like, “You should read Crazy Time, several people have told me what a great book that is when you’re getting a divorce.” Another friend was going through a truly staggering series of tragedies, and I couldn’t help sending her quotations that seemed relevant.

On the one hand, I’m sure my friends know that this is my idiosyncratic way of showing love, and trying to be helpful, but on the other hand, I know I should be quiet and listen, and not keep saying “Read this, read that!” Next time, I will hold myself back. I vow.

Have you found any strategies that have helped you be a better listener?

Ta-Da! The Launch of My Quiz on the Four Tendencies. Learn About Yourself!

Of everything I learned about habits and human nature from working on my book Better Than Before, the most challenging thing I figured out — and the insight I’m most proud of — is my Four Tendencies framework. (See below for a quick overview.)

It took me months of rumination to make sense of everything I’d observed, and to fit it into a system that accounted for everything. I’ll never forget the thrill I felt when everything at last fell into place.

I felt like I’d uncovered something like the Periodic Table of the Elements. My framework is balanced, consistent, encompassing, and predictive — if I do say so myself.

For that reason, I wanted to develop a quiz to help people figure out their Tendency. With the help of the extraordinary Mike Courtney and his team at Aperio Insights, it’s ready! (It turns out that it’s a lot harder to make this kind of quiz than you might think.)

At last, it’s finished. Take the quiz here. Your results will give you your Tendency, along with a simple description. If you’d like more information about your Tendency, you’ll get a prompt at the end to request a detailed report.

Remember, be honest! The Quiz is only as accurate as the answers you provide.

When I talk about the Tendencies, people often say, “I’m a mix.”  It’s true that the Tendencies do overlap, so each Tendency shares aspects with other Tendencies — but it’s not really possible to be a mix. To be an Upholder is not to be an Obliger. To be a Questioner is not to be a Rebel.   While Upholders and Obligers both respond readily to outer expectations, it’s how they respond to inner expectations that distinguishes them. Similarly, Questioners and Rebels both resist outer expectations; it’s how they respond to inner expectations that distinguishes them. And so on.

For this reason, part of what made the Quiz tricky was that I had to figure out questions that would really pinpoint the key differences among the Tendencies.

Once you’ve taken the Quiz — did your answer ring true for you?

In Better Than Before, I explore at greater length the nature of the Four Tendencies, and how they affect habits.

In fact, I’m thinking of writing a little book that’s a field guide to the Four Tendencies, one that goes even deeper into this framework. Would you be interested in something like that?

In the meantime, take the Quiz! I’d love to hear what you think.

If you need a quick overview of the Four Tendencies:

In a nutshell, it distinguishes how people tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense–essentially, they make all expectations into inner expectations
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

 

If you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, you can watch: for Upholders, watch here; Questioners, here;  Rebels, here, and Obligers, here.

I hope you find the Quiz useful. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun to do. I’m very curious to hear people’s reaction to it, so please do post a comment to share your thoughts..

Interested in Habits? Want a Free Bonus Gift? Of Course!

My new book, Better Than Before, explains how we can master our habits. In it, I reveal the secret to changing habits—really!

It turns out that changing habits isn’t that hard, when you know what to do. The book hits the shelves on March 17, 2015.

Pre-orders really help a book, by building buzz among the media, booksellers, and readers. If you’re inclined to buy Better Than Before, pre-ordering now is a big help.

So, as a thank-you to readers who pre-order the book, my publisher is offering a limited-edition bonus set. As you see in the image, you’ll get…

  • A Better Than Before cell-phone case (for the iPhone 5 or 6, or Samsung 5)
  • A wallet card with my Habits Manifesto
  • A bookplate signed by me

 

To receive your gift, pre-order the book from your favorite retailer, save your receipt, and click here to fill out the form with your order confirmation. If you’ve already pre-ordered, don’t worry — there are instructions telling you what to do. (And thank you!)

Want more information before you commit yourself to a pre-order?

To read an excerpt, look here.

To listen to a clip of the audio-book, listen here (that’s me, reading).

To check out other habit-related materials, click here. (For instance, you can get one-pagers on “Eating Better Than Before,” “Working Better Than Before, ” “Exercising Better Than Before,” and my favorite, “Reading Better Than Before.”)

Remember, you won’t be charged for the book until it ships.

This offer runs until February 15, 2015. Alas, my publisher can offer this in the U.S. only, and has a limited amount, so I apologize in advance if we run out.

As always, readers, I so appreciate your support and enthusiasm. If you live in a tour city, I hope I see you this spring. If you live in L.A., San Diego, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, Princeton, Washington D.C., Boston, Madison CT, Cedar Rapids, Philadelphia, or of course New York City, I’m headed your way. Please come, tell your friends. (Tour dates in Canada, UK., and Australia coming soon.)

Better Than Before  was very tough to write; habit change is a very challenging, large subject.  But I loved writing this book.

As always, readers, thank you for your support and enthusiasm.

Thank You, Readers, For All Your Good Wishes

I want to say thank you to everyone who wrote me, one way or another, to send good wishes to me and my family after my announcement that my husband is cured — yes, that’s right, cured — of hepatitis C.

I wasn’t able to answer every comment on my blog and on Facebook, but believe me, I read every single one.

I thought I couldn’t get any happier, but knowing that so many people were rejoicing with us cranked me right up to 11.

Also, many people told me that as a result of my post, they’d signed up to be an organ donor.  Just think: years from now, some family may be as relieved and ecstatic as my family is right now, because of a small action someone took this week.

Thank you. I’m very, very happy.