Secret of Adulthood: Lose Yourself to Find Yourself.

From Further Secrets of Adulthood.

I think this Secret of Adulthood operates on more than one level.

One way that I “lose myself” is by reading — I lose myself in a book, and I find myself in a book. Or music, sports, drawing, cooking…there are many ways to do this.

And also, sometimes we have to lose our way in order to find our way.

I’m reminded of the e. e. cummings poem, “maggie and milly and molly and may”:

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

I especially love that last stanza.

How about you? Do you lose yourself–to find yourself?

How Does a Rebel Change Habits? One Rebel’s Clever Solutions.

In my (bestselling) book Better Than Before, I set forth my “Four Tendencies” framework, which divides people into one of four categories, depending on how they respond to expectations. To take the quiz to find out your Tendency, go here. To read generally about the Four Tendencies, go here.

Since Better Than Before came out last month, I’ve talked a lot about the Four Tendencies. It’s definitely one of the things that readers are finding most interesting.

I love it when people tell me about their ingenious ways of working with their Tendency, in order to change their habits. For instance, I was impressed with an Obliger who figured out how to build a system of external accountability for getting up at 6:00 a.m. How would you do that? I wondered. Her solution was brilliant: on HootSuite, she’s teed up an embarrassing Facebook post that will go live at 6:15 a.m., unless she gets up in time to disable it. Problem solved!

I got an email from a Rebel, Lucia, who came up with some terrific ways to work with her Rebel Tendency to shape her habits.

Mastering habits is a particular challenge for Rebels, because of their general opposition to anything that feels like a chain or a pre-commitment. In fact, I’ve been struck by how many Rebels have contacted me, to ask about how to shape their habits — and so I asked Lucia if I could post her solutions, because other Rebels might benefit.

Lucia writes:

I had such a lightning bolt moment when I read Better than Before and identified my tendency. I’m a Rebel, and while I take distinct pride in this tendency, it is quite a difficult one to work with when trying to form habits!

The areas where I’ve struggled most have been, like a lot of people, food and exercise. I managed to adopt an exercise routine last year when I began weight lifting and boxing with my male friends. After reading your book, I realized why I have been able to maintain this strategy for so long — women typically don’t lift weights like men (bench presses, etc) and women typically don’t box. Subconsciously, the act of exercising in a way atypical of my gender has been satisfying my inner Rebel, and so I have able to stick to it. I take pride in saying, “I can leg press around 300 lbs.” Most people say, “Wow, that’s a lot for a girl,” and I think to myself, Yes, that’s right, ‘for a girl!’ I am unique and my exercise is unique!  [Here, she’s using the Strategy of Other People — Rebels delight in doing something in their own way, with an approach that’s different from others.]

Additionally, I realized why I have not been able to conquer my food habits in the same way. I read (and loved) Gary Taubes [who wrote the book Why We Get Fat, which I write about in Better Than Before] around the same time I started lifting and boxing. Since then, I have gone through cycles of climbing onto and falling off of the low carb bandwagon. Now, thanks to Better than Before, I know why! I was trying to force myself with science, and rebels listen to no one. Not even Gary Taubes (Step 1: Identify the problem). I had to think of ways to make eating healthy feel like a freedom and a choice, rather than an obligation. [This is using the Strategies of Identity and Clarity: the Rebel decides, “This is what I want, this is who I am.”] This was quite difficult, because eating healthy is such a highly encouraged habit in society. Whenever I hear people talk about “feeding their temples” and “nurturing their bodies” I grow resentful and annoyed.  So I came up with the following strategies to make eating right feel like my own special, contrarian decision:

1) Restrict quality, not quantity. Allowing myself to eat as much as I want takes the edge off of the restrictions that come with the low carb lifestyle. Whenever I get the urge to snack mindlessly, I tell myself to eat as much as I want of the low carb food in my fridge. And suddenly, the burning desire goes away.

2) Relish in cooking, and cooking things that are unique. Not many people cook all their meals, and I take pride in the fact that I do (how many people, especially 23-year-olds, make beef bourguignon?). [This is another way of using the Strategy of Other People.]

3) Relish in using foods that are demonized by misinformed nutritional science. Bacon. Steak. Butter. [This is yet another smart use of the Strategy of Other People.]

I have countless more little tricks (I’m an Abstainer) and strategies (Convenience — I prep all my meals on Sundays so they’re easy to grab). In summary, I cracked it! I have been able to keep the habit for several weeks now and am noticing the difference!

I never would have identified my Rebel tendency and been able to tackle my food habits in this way without you.

My father would like me to add that he has known this about me since I was a four, when I would wrench books out of his hands and insist hotly, “I can read it myself!

This is a great example of the fact that we can master our habits, if we do it in the way that’s right for us. When we take into account our own nature, we can set ourselves up for success.

But when we search for one-size-fits-all solutions, they often just don’t work.

How about you? Have you come up with some ways to work with your Tendency to shape your habits? As I’ve been on my book tour, I’ve loved hearing all the stories.

Do People Ask Themselves the Right Questions?

“People often ask themselves the right questions. Where they fail is in answering the questions they ask themselves, and even there they do not fail by much…But it takes time, it takes humility and a serious reason for searching.”

— William Maxwell, Time Will Darken It

Agree, disagree?

I think it’s often very hard to think searchingly about questions that we know we should face, but don’t want to face.


Video: The Tomorrow Loophole. A Very Popular Loophole!

In my new (bestselling) book, Better Than Before, I identify the twenty-one strategies of habit-formation, and one is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the ten categories of loopholes. I love studying loopholes, because they’re so funny. And ingenious! We’re such great advocates for ourselves — in any situation, we can always think of some loophole to invoke.

Well, what is a “loophole?” 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.

In Better Than Before, I describe all ten categories of loopholes; in this video series. I’ll describe them, one by one.

First of ten loopholes: the Tomorrow Loophole. Boy, this is a favorite. It always works, because, as Little Orphan Annie reminds us, “tomorrow is always a day away.”


This loophole depends on “tomorrow logic.” Now doesn’t matter much, because we’re going to follow good habits tomorrow.

It doesn’t matter what I eat now, because I’m starting a diet tomorrow. (Research shows that people who plan to start dieting tomorrow tend to over-eat today.)


I’m definitely on track to finish my paper on time, because starting tomorrow, I’m really going to buckle down.


I’ll be really frugal in January so it doesn’t matter if I spend too much in December.


Today I’m eating whatever I want, but tomorrow I’ll be “good.” (People tend to self-regulate day-by-day, but everything counts.)

How about you? Do you find yourself arguing that it’s okay to do something today, because you’ll act differently tomorrow?

“As Long as the Good Habits Outnumber the Bad Ones, I’m Ahead of the Game.”

Interview: Frank Bruni.

Frank Bruni has written several books and is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. His brand-new book is a bestseller that has received a huge amount of buzz: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. It’s a thought-provoking look at how the college admission system works–and a fresh, reassuring reminder of what really matters in the college experience (as I wrote in my blurb for Frank’s book!).

Also, when I was researching Better Than Before, I read Frank’s fascinating memoir, Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite, because I was reading everything I could find that I thought might touch on the subject of habits.

I knew Frank would have some interesting insights — and he did.

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

Frank: There are three that come to mind, and they may stretch the definition of habit, in that they don’t all occur with daily or weekly or even monthly frequency, but I still think they qualify. And they’re of a piece, as they all relate to family.

My family—my father, my siblings, their spouses, their kids, my partner and I—are all very close, and there have been times in the past when, as a result of that closeness, we took actual time together for granted. But we’ve now ritualized certain things, which is another way of saying that we’ve turned them into habits, so that we’re guaranteed to see one another often, and this brings me enormous happiness. In fact a column I once wrote about it, called “The Gift of Siblings,” was by far the most widely read and shared column I’ve ever written for The Times.

One week every year, all 21 of us pile into a beach house somewhere in the Caribbean or Mexico or such, always in the summer, when it’s off season and less crazily expensive. And every time one of us adults has a milestone birthday—something ending in a zero—we adults do a special weekend away. My 50th, for example, was in late October of last year; we all spent three days in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, which is wine country.

And I no longer let more than a four or five days go by without talking with my father, either in person or on the phone. That wasn’t always so: my mother, who died years ago, was the talker, the one who wanted and even demanded to communicate; Dad was the silent rock, or maybe the plant that needed no watering. Sometimes my conversations with him are just five minutes, but five minutes is everything. Me hearing his voice, he hearing mine: It’s an enormous comfort. I know it won’t last forever—he’s about to turn 80—but thanks to this habit, maybe, just maybe, it will last forever, and more indelibly, in memory.

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

That habits are like muscles; they get stronger with repeated exercise. You force yourself to do something the first time. You force yourself the second and the third and the fourth. And then, with each subsequent effort, there’s less force required. What was intense effort becomes unthinking reflex or at least something close to that. You just have to trust in that trajectory at the outset. You have to tell yourself at the beginning, when so much will is required, that you’re not always going to need that reserve, that you’re moving toward a destination where everything becomes so much easier.

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

Before I write, I need to read. I’ve seen time and again that I write better in the morning if I’ve read at night; I write better in the mid-afternoon if I paused midday to read. I’m astonished at how long I fought this, because I was sometimes lazy or tired or the reading seemed like procrastination, like a luxury. I finally stopped fighting. This was a habit begging to be developed, and yet still I resisted. It’s funny: habits are like commitments, until they become reflexive. And in the same way you can be a commitment-phobe, you can be a habit-phobe.

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

Yes. I have never lost the enjoyment of eating late at night and especially of indulging in a guilty food pleasure late at night. And though I’ve improved on this front, I still give in to this temptation and tendency—this habit—far too often. But you know what? In my life I’ve quit smoking. I’ve cut way back on drinking. I’ve remained a steady exerciser. So I don’t beat myself up about it. I see habits as a balance sheet. As long as the good ones outnumber the bad, and as long as the list of good ones grows faster than the list of bad ones, I’m ahead of the game. I’m OK.

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

I think I straddle two of these. I’m two-thirds Obliger, one-third upholder. Though I hope—I pray—I have a dollop of rebel in there somewhere. [Note: this combination means that Frank is an Obliger.]

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Yes. The first personal trainer I ever saw. I used to get out of healthy habits by telling myself that if I couldn’t commit to them 100 percent or didn’t execute them perfectly then I might as well stall and wait until such (possibly mythic) moment when I could. He really hammered into me that doing at least some of what you intend to and doing it imperfectly is better than taking a pass on the whole shebang—and that it’s also the beginning of the path toward doing it really well, toward making the habit stick. I think he was and is right about that. I thank him for sharing that perspective with me. For haranguing me, really.