So Tomorrow Is a Big Day. At Least, For Me

Well, tomorrow is the big day.  After years of work, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives will hit the shelves. Note my excellent book-jacket-matching cell-phone case!

Today, I’m reminding myself of what my father always says: “Enjoy the process.” In fact, “Enjoy the process” is one of the twelve Personal Commandments that I wrote for my happiness project.

If I enjoy the process, then the outcome doesn’t matter as much.  I’ve had my fun.

I certainly enjoyed the process of writing Better Than Before. Habits! I’m more fascinated by this subject now than when I started my research for the book, and I must say that I was already pretty darned obsessed when I started.  It was a joy to write this book — but it was also very difficult.  Of all my subjects — which include big subjects like happiness and Winston Churchill — this was the most demanding, because I did the most original analysis (it seems to me). I came up with new vocabulary, figured out a fresh way to pull together the well-established habit-change strategies, and of course, most difficult was figuring out the Four Tendencies framework.

Now that the book is heading out into the world, it has been great fun to get to talk about the book and about habits. In fact, after some interviews, the reporters have emailed me to tell me that after we spoke, they changed some of their habits! Which I love to hear, of course.

I can’t stand to listen or watch myself — but here are some clips if you’re interested:

Rachel Martin interviewed me for NPR’s Weekend Edition — you can listen here. Turns out Rachel is a Questioner, and if this conversation makes you wonder if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel, take this quiz to find out.

Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie talked with me about how to break bad habits.  You can watch here. A highlight? When Matt ate the M&Ms out of the trash can. Can you tell how surprised I was when he did that? Hilarious! Abstainers, you’re with me, right? Give it up, that’s easier.

I just talked to my husband, and he told me a funny example of my habit principles in action. Each spring break, my husband and I and our two daughters go on a beach vacation with my in-laws — but this year, I’m going on my book tour instead.

“Because you’re not here, everything is happening an hour and half later,” he reported. “We’re all sleeping later and eating later and staying up later.”

Now, when I’m on vacation with them, I don’t consciously order people around. But if I’m there, it’s definitely true that I prefer to do things on the early side. Especially dinner.

So this is a good illustration of how one person — me — affects the eating, sleeping, and waking habits of five other people. That’s the Strategy of Other People.

If you’d like to know more about this strategy, and all the other habit-change strategies that I explore, you can…

–read an excerpt

GretchenReadingAudiobook–listen to an audio-clip — I read the audio-book, and here you can see me recording; the pillow in my lap is intended to muffle “stomach noises.”

–download discussion guides for book groups, or work groups, or spirituality groups

–get a “starter kit” for people forming Better Than Before groups, to work on changing their habits (Obligers, this is one way you can create the crucial external accountability you need)

buy it!

request a free, signed bookplate for yourself, or if you’re giving it as a gift, for other people (U.S. & Canada only, sorry; mailing costs)

–I have something new — a Checklist for Habit Change. It’s a one-pager that lists all 21 habit-change strategies. You identify the habit you want to change, and then fill in the strategies that you could deploy to change it. I think people will find this a really useful tool, but you probably have to read the book first, to understand it.

Thanks for your patience with my self-promotion. In these days of fewer bookstores and shrinking book coverage, we writers have learned to be pretty pushy. I’ve worked so hard on this book; I want to give it a good shot at reaching an audience. Because truly, I think that Better Than Before will help people to succeed in changing their habits, even when they’ve failed before. It’s not that hard…when you know what to do.

Publication is tomorrow, which is a kind of finish line…and I’m reminded of the strange, haunting meditation about finish lines from tennis star Andre Agassi. He’s right; something strange happens around finish lines.

Strange or not, it’s exciting! As always, thank you, my dear readers, for your enthusiasm, your support, and your ideas. I appreciate it so much.

Fill in the Blank: The Greatest of Empires Is the Empire Over ______.

“The greatest of empires, is the empire over one’s self.”
—Publilius Syrus

I love quoting from my favorite works, and I have a giant trove of quotations. (If you love quotations too, you can sign up for my daily email, with a great habits or happiness quotation.)

Because I collect so many quotations, for me, one of the most difficult, and more pleasant, tasks of writing a book  is choosing the epigraph. I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering my favorite candidates. The epigraph must both be a beautiful passage to read in isolation, yet also cast unexpected light on the argument of the book. It’s so hard to choose!

Today’s quotation is what I chose, after much inner debate, to be the epigraph for Better Than Before. It’s  an assertion that I believe with all my heart, and is at the core of the argument of the book, and expressed in haunting language. “The greatest of empires, is the empire over one’s self.”

My argument about habits is: There’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution. It would be great if we could all “Do it first thing in the morning!” “Start small!” “Have a weekly cheat day!” or “Do it for 30 days!” and form a habit, and sometimes those strategies do work — but sometimes they don’t. Why not? What can we do instead, if they don’t work?  We all must understand ourselves, and given what’s true for us, pick the strategies that are right for us — and in this way, become the master of ourselves.

I considered adding a second epigraph to Better Than Before, but many of the people who helped me edit the book thought that this line struck an ominous note. To me, it’s not negative, just the truth. But true, it’s a harsh truth: John Gardner’s observation, “Every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.”

It’s a line with many, many meanings. In the context of habit-formation, I think about it whenever I ponder the Four Tendencies. Because, whether you’re an Upholder like me, or a Rebel, or a Questioner or an Obliger, there’s no evading it: with your habits, every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.

In the end, I decided to leave it out, because I thought the more important quotation, from Publilius Syrus, would be more powerful it it stood alone.

For a while, I also intended to include a quotation by William James (of course; you can’t talk about habits without quoting William James) but in the end decided to leave that single line to stand alone.

If you had to pick an epigraph for your life, or a saying that summed up your personal philosophy, what would you choose?  Many people now put a quotation in the footer of their emails, and I always enjoy seeing what they choose — or what they clip and post on the fridge, or needlepoint onto a pillow, or frame and hang on the wall.

Do You Have Things That You Don’t Use, But Can’t Toss? Hobbits Do.

Yet another Lord-of-the-Rings inspired post!

What can I say? Everything reminds me of habits these days. Better Than Before comes out next week, so I can’t really think about much other than habits. And, apparently, hobbits.

And here’s a hobbit habit, as described in The Fellowship of the Ring:

“Anything that Hobbits had no further use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort.”

I love this term! Mathoms are indeed a problem. All that stuff — you don’t want to get rid of it; but you don’t actually use it or want  it. Re-gifting is a terrific solution, but rarely possible.

What’s the tie to habits? One thing that has surprised me most about habits is the degree to which, for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm, and inner self-command.

There’s something about getting control of the stuff of life that makes us feel more in control of our lives generally. And if that’s an illusion, it’s a helpful illusion.

Although it doesn’t necessarily seem logical, for most people, it’s easier to eat right when the kitchen is tidy; it’s easier to exercise when your desk isn’t buried in papers; it’s easier to make the bed when the floor isn’t covered by dirty clothes.

In Better Than Before, I discuss the Strategy of Foundation. From my observation, habits in four areas do most to boost feelings of self-control, and in this way strengthen the Foundation of all our habits. We do well to begin by tackling the habits that help us to:

1. sleep
2. move
3. eat and drink right
4. unclutter

Foundation habits tend to reinforce each other—for instance,
exercise helps people sleep, and sleep helps people do everything
better—so they’re a good place to start for any kind of habit change.

Furthermore, somewhat mysteriously, Foundation habits sometimes make profound change possible. A friend once told me, “I cleaned out my fridge, and now I know I can switch careers.” I knew exactly what she meant.

For this reason, taking charge of the mathoms in our lives — giving them away, donating them, tossing them, or putting them to use — makes us feel more in command of ourselves, and therefore more able to master our habits.

What form do your mathoms take? Off the top of my head, in my house, I would say: flower vases, serving dishes, board games, tote bags, light jackets, and mugs.

Flower vases are a particular issue. They always seem so useful, but I never buy cut flowers (as an under-buyer), so whenever we get flowers, it’s because someone sent them — in a vase!

When we moved, I gave a giant box of vases to the flower shop on the corner of our street. It may be time to do that again. One apartment can hold only so many mathoms.

Like Gollum, Do You Have Something Precious–That Isn’t Good for You?

As I mentioned the other day, to give myself some comfort food for my brain as I gear up for the publication of Better Than Before next week, I’ve been re-re-re-re-re-re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books.

These days, everything reminds me of habits, because I’ve been thinking and writing about habits for so long. And The Lord of the Rings is no different.

In case you’re not quite as familiar with the story as I am, one of the book’s main characters is Gollum, who for many years carried the One Ring, an evil ring of supreme power.  The ring extended Gollum’s life but turned him into a pitiful creature.

In the book The Hobbit, Gollum loses the ring, which is found by the hobbit Bilbo, who later gives it to Frodo, etc., etc.

How does this relate to habits? Bear with me.

Whenever Gollum refers to the ring, he calls it “my precious.” “Losst it is, my precious, lost, lost! Curse us and crush us, my precious is lost!

And when the wizard Gandalf goes to research the history of the ring, he finds an account by King Isildur, who, in the distant past, had won the ring from the evil Sauron. Isildur writes of the ring, which he refuses to destroy, “It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”

So again, that word “precious.” Once the ring comes into the various people’s possession, they hate to give it up.  They become enslaved to the ring, though it’s precious to them.

I’m haunted by the way, through the books, Gollum mourns for “my precious.” And if you watch the movies, you see the way he hisses out, “my precioussss.” (You can watch a 10-second clip here.)

Here’s the tie to habits: I’ve noticed that many people have a habit that makes them unhappy — one that they know drains them, isn’t good for them, causes them grief. And yet, at the thought of giving it up, they protest, “No! It’s my precioussssssss!”

A friend told me that she was uncomfortable about how much wine she was drinking every night, but when I said, “Do you think you’d like to stop drinking the wine?” she became very agitated, saying “No, no! I don’t want to do that.”

Or when another friend told me that she felt bad about her weight, and I said that I felt so much better after I gave up sugar, she said, “Oh, that’s ridiculous. I could never give up sugar.”

And I talked to a friend from law school who felt lousy because he was exhausted all the time; when he told me that he gets four hours of sleep each night, I said, “Maybe you could go to bed earlier?” In a furious voice, he said, “If I went to bed earlier, that would mean my firm would get more of me! That time at night is the only time I have to myself!”

Each time, I was reminded of Gollum and Isildur. “It’s my preciousssss! It’s precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”

We’re grown-ups. We can do what we want. I’m not saying that giving up wine, or sugar, or leisure time is necessarily the right thing for those folks to do. But as my Habits Manifesto holds, “We should make sure the things we do to feel better don’t make us feel worse.

It’s precious…but perhaps we’d be healthier, happier, and more productive if we think about tossing it away.

Whenever I start to get that feeling in my life, when I feel myself starting to hiss, “But it’s my precioussssss!” I pay attention. Am I being mastered by something that’s not good for me?

greekyyogurtFor a while, I had this feeling about — of all things — Greek yogurt. Oh, how I love Greek yogurt! I was eating it two or three times a day, instead of other foods. Which I knew wasn’t a healthy course for me. And if some other member of my family ate the last carton of yogurt, I was furious.

So I stopped eating it altogether for a while (that’s the Abstainer way).  Now I eat it just once a day, and am finding that manageable.

But for a while there, I had that feeling of “this isn’t good for me/but it’s precious to me/so I’m going to refuse to give it up.”

How about you? Have you ever had this feeling about something, “It’s my precioussssssss!” How did you master it — if you have?

In a future podcast of Happier with Gretchen Rubin, you’ll hear my sister Elizabeth talk about her precioussss: Candy Crush.

Podcast: Make Your Bed, Resist the Evil Donut-Bringer, and Take a Hike.

Third episode! I’m having so much fun doing the new weekly podcast, “Happier with Gretchen Rubin with my sister the sage, Elizabeth Craft.

It has been especially thrilling that so many people have listened already — at one point, we were #6 on iTunes! Yowza.

Here’s what we discuss in this episode:

Try This at Home: One of the easiest, most popular habits that will boost your happiness–and it’s not what you might expect. Make your bed. I have to say, this is something that people mention to me all the time.

Happiness Stumbling Block: Free food — especially at work. In this discussion, Elizabeth mentions the Abstainer vs. Moderator distinction, which we talked about in an earlier podcast — you can listen to that conversation, here.

Listener Question: Do you think that thinking about happiness makes you happier?

Demerit: I snarled at a security guard who asked to look in my bag. Sheesh. I feel terrible every time I think about it.

FrymanCanyonGold Star: Elizabeth gives a shout-out to L.A.’s Fryman Canyon. And here she is, about to set off — she’s got her headphones so she can listen to podcasts while she hikes. (That’s a good example of the Strategy of Pairing, by the way.)

If you listen, let us know — does making your bed make you happier, or not? Do you resent free food at work, or do you love it?

To listen to this episode, just zip to the bottom of this post and hit the red “play” button.

Or if you’re reading this post by email, click here to view online, to listen to the podcast from this post.

Want to know what to expect from other episodes of the podcast, when you listen toHappier with Gretchen Rubin“? We talk about how to build happier habits into everyday life, as we draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, lessons from pop culture—and our own experiences (and mistakes).

Each week, we give  a “Try This at Home” suggestion, for some easy habit you can try, as part of your ordinary routine, to boost your happiness—something like setting an alarm to signal your bedtime, or using the one-minute rule, to help yourself stay on top of small nagging tasks.

We also suggest questions to help you “Know Yourself Better”—like “Whom do you envy?” and “Are you a Marathoner or a Sprinter in your work style?”—and explore “Happiness Stumbling Blocks,” those small, seemingly insignificant parts of daily life that drag us down—everything from the problem of the Evil Donut-Bringer to the fact that working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

We “Grill the Guest,” consider “Listener Questions,” and finally, we get even more personal, and each of us either gives ourselves a “Demerit” for a mistake we made that week, that affected our happiness, or awards a “Gold Star” to someone or something that deserves recognition.

We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much!

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE: If you’re like me (until recently) you’re intrigued by podcasts, but you don’t know how to listen or subscribe. It’s very easy, really. Really! Instructions here.

Or for an amusing short how-to video made by Ira Glass of This American Life, click here.

If you want to listen to more than one episode, and to have it all in a handier way, on your phone or tablet, it’s better to subscribe. Really, it’s easy.

Tell us what you think! Drop us a line at @gretchenrubin, @elizabethcraft, Facebook,, or call 774-277-9336. Or just add your comment to this post.

Again, be sure to subscribe and listen and subscribe on iTunes so you never miss an episode. And if you enjoyed it, please tell your friends and give us a rating or review. Listeners really respect the views of other listeners, so your response helps people find good material. (Not sure how to review? Instructions here; scroll to the bottom.)

Happy listening! Or I should say, HAPPIER listening!