Guess: What Are the “Two Types of Perfect,” According to B. J. Novak?

“In my opinion, there are two types of perfect. The first is the type that seems so obvious and intuitive to you and everyone else that in a perfect world it would simply be considered standard; but, in reality, in our flawed world, what should be considered standard is actually so rare that it has to be elevated to the level of ‘perfect.’ This is the type of perfect that makes you and most other people think, ‘Why isn’t everything like this? Why is it so hard to find…’ a black V-neck cotton sweater, or a casual non-chain restaurant with comfortable booths, etc.–‘that is just exactly the way everyone knows something like this should be?’ ‘Perfect,’ we all say with relief when we finally find something like this that is exactly as it should be. ‘Perfect. Why was this so hard to find?’

“The other type of perfect is the type you never could have expected and then could never replicate.”

— B. J. Novak, “Sophia,” in One More Thing

I can’t resist quoting, too, from the last paragraph of Novak’s Acknowledgements. I thought this was so lovely. He has two pages thanking various people, including Mindy Kaling of course (I always think of these two together), and concludes:

“Josh Funk and Hunter Fraser: we haven’t been in touch in years, but you made me feel like the funniest kid in the world. I would stay up late on school nights to write things to try to make you laugh the next day in class, and you inspired the one piece of writing that I’ve ever felt qualified to give: write for the kid sitting next to you.”

This beautiful acknowledgement made me think of many things, but in particular, it reminded me that we never know how our actions and our words will affect other people. These two guys! Their enthusiasm may have been a crucial catalyst for Novak’s career.

 

Video: A Great Strategy To Fight Temptations? Distraction.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To pre-order, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I’d really appreciate it if you pre-order it.)

Today, I’m talking about the Strategy of Distraction.

 

Whenever I’m tempted to break a good habit (or indulge in a bad habit, two sides of the same coin), I say to myself, “I can leave my desk—in fifteen minutes.” The delay of fifteen minutes is often long enough for me to get absorbed in something else. If I distract myself sufficiently, I may forget about a craving entirely.

When we distract ourselves, we purposefully redirect our thoughts, and by doing so, we change our experience.

Of course, it’s not enough to be distracted; we must distract ourselves in the right way. Checking Pinterest isn’t a good distraction for the person who wants to break the habit of late-night online shopping; reading a mystery would work better.

Also, making a purely mental shift can be difficult, so distraction works best when it involves some physical activity: walking around the block, woodworking, or cleaning out the kitty-litter box. Of course, if it’s an enjoyable distraction, such as playing catch with a child, so much the better.

Using the Strategy of Distraction doesn’t mean trying to suppress an unwelcome thought, but rather deliberately shifting attention. When we try to squash a particular thought, we may trigger the “ironic rebound,” so that paradoxically, we think about it all the more.

Although people often assume that cravings intensify over time, research shows that with active distraction, urges—even strong urges—usually subside within about fifteen minutes.

On a different subject, in the video, I mention that readers can request free, signed, personalized bookplates to put in their books. If you’d like to email me your request, for you or for gifts, click here. U.S. and Canada only — sorry about that.

Do you use the Strategy of Distraction to help you master your habits?

What Brooke Shields Says about Habits: Soul Cycle, Sleep, and More

Interview: Brooke Shields.

Last week, Brooke Shields and I did a breakfast event together, to benefit a terrific organization, Room To Grow, which enriches the lives of children born into poverty during the critical first three years of life.

Brooke Shields is, of course, the super-famous actor, model — and also writer. I’d read her thought-provoking book about postpartum depression, Down Came the Rain, and I’m well into her brand-new book: There Was a Little Girl: the Real Story of My Mother and Me.

Naturally I couldn’t resist asking if she’d do an interview on my blog.

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

Brooke Shields: Spin Class at Soul Cycle.

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

Sleep is more important than I ever realized.

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

Drinking beer.

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

Exercising and getting enough sleep are my most important things for a healthy lifestyle

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

Adding yoga to my routine while I was pregnant was a healthy habit I gained. Worrying about what other people though of me was an unhealthy habit I gave up after I had children and went to therapy.

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

UPHOLDER!!

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties) 

Travel makes it difficult, but I always pack my gym clothes with the intention of exercising.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace them. I crave consistency and order.

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

My friend Stacey Griffiths from Soul Cycle, he motivates me like nobody I have ever met.

Do You Agree with These 7 Quotations about Habits?

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: Do you agree with these 7 quotations about habits?

Whenever I read a book, I love to copy my favorite lines and passages into my giant trove of quotations. (If you love quotations too, sign up for my “Moment of Happiness,” a free daily quote.)

When doing my research for Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I naturally began to collect quotations about habits. Working those passages into the book was one of my favorite things to do.

Certain quotations, however, had a particularly strong influence over my thinking about habits.

1. “Every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.” — John Gardner

I love this quotation, and almost made it the epigraph of the entire book. Gardner is a Rebel, and made that observation from his Rebel perspective, but it’s just as true for everyone. Nothing stays in Vegas; everything counts.

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

I made this quotation the epigraph of the book, instead. With habits, as with happiness, it all boils down to self-knowledge. When we truly know ourselves, we can master ourselves to create the lives that suit us best.

3. “A stumble may prevent a fall.” — English Proverb

With habits, it’s very important to think about safeguards, and to plan to fail. The idea that a little failure might actually be constructive  — that a stumble may prevent a fall — is very helpful idea to help to re-frame lapses.

4. “Researchers were surprised to find that people with strong self-control spent less time resisting desires than other people did. . . . people with good self-control mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and at work.”  — Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

This quotation lacks that aphoristic quality of the others, but it really sparked my thinking about habits, and why they’re so valuable. Auto-pilot! Habits help us escape the drain of making decisions and exercising willpower.

5. “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The issue of reward is extremely complicated in the field of habits. Rewards are very, very tricky to apply. But the one reward that never fails is the satisfaction of the good habits itself.

6. “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” — Iris Murdoch

We must have treats! More and more, I’m seeing that the idea of deprivation is an enormous challenge to good habits. When we start to feel deprived, we enter into the “I need it, I deserve it, I’ve earned it” cycle. Getting lots of healthy treats help ward that off. When we give more to ourselves, we can ask more of ourselves.

7. “If I consider my life honestly, I see that it is governed by a certain very small number of patterns of events which I take part in over and over again…when I see how very few of them there are, I begin to understand what huge effect these few patterns have on my life, on my capacity to live. If these few patterns are good for me, I can live well. If they are bad for me, I can’t.” — Christopher Alexander

This is a reminder of the central role of habits in our daily existence, and also a reminder of the very purpose of mastering habits: to live well.  It may take time and effort to change our habits, but in the end, they make our lives better.

Do you agree or disagree with these statements?

Do you have any habit-related quotes you love? Or any quotation at all, really. I do love quotations.

To pre-order Better Than Before, go here. If you’re inclined to buy the book, it really helps me if you pre-order it. Remember, you won’t be charged until the book ships, so don’t worry about that.

What Habits Are Best for Creativity?

When I tell people that I’ve been working on Better Than Before, my book about habit change, many people ask, “What habits are best for creativity? What habits help people think creatively — and also, actually produce?

Often, people make the case for adopting a particular habit by pointing to a renowned figure who practiced that habit, with great success. For instance…

Maybe we should live a life of quiet predictability, like Charles Darwin.

Or maybe we should indulge in boozy revelry, like Toulouse-Lautrec.

Maybe we should wake up early, like Haruki Murakami.

Or maybe we should work late into the night, like Tom Stoppard.

Maybe it’s okay to procrastinate endlessly, like William James.

Or maybe it’s better to work regular hours, like Anthony Trollope.

Should we work in silence, like Gustav Mahler?

Or amidst a bustle of activity, like Jane Austen?

Maybe it’s helpful to drink a lot of alcohol, like Fried­rich Schiller.

Or a lot of coffee, like Kierkegaard.

Are we better off produc­ing work for many hours a day, like H. L. Mencken?

Or maybe for just thirty minutes a day, like Gertrude Stein.

The sad fact is, there’s no magic formula, no one-size-fits-all solution—not for ourselves, and not for the peo­ple around us.

We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.

In his fascinating book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, from which these examples are drawn, Mason Currey exhaustively examines the work habits of 161 writers, composers, artists, scientists, and philos­ophers.

These examples make one thing perfectly clear about creative habits: while brilliant people vary tre­mendously in the specific habits they follow, they all know very well what habits work for them, and they go to enormous lengths to maintain those habits.

I used to tell everyone that working slowly and steadily was the best way to produce creative work. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to encourage everyone to get up early, to work in the morning. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to say that it was better to work in a reasonably quiet, calm environment. Because that’s what works for me.

But as I worked on Better Than Before, it became increasingly clear to me that the opposite habits work better for some people.

I’m a Marathoner, but some people are Sprinters.

I’m a Lark, but some people are Owls.

I’m a Simplicity-Lover, but other people are Abundance-Lovers.

We have to think about ourselves. It’s helpful to ask, “When have I worked well in the past? What did my habits look like then – and how can I replicate them?” Maybe you work more creatively with a team – or by yourself. Maybe you need deadlines – or maybe you feel strangled by deadlines. Maybe you like working on several projects at once — or you prefer to focus on one project at a time.

With habits, as with happiness, the secret is to figure out ourselves. When we shape our habits to suit our own nature, our own interests, and our own values, we set ourselves up for success.

How about you? What habits contribute or detract from your creativity?