Six Things I Learned While Recording the Audiobook for Better Than Before

This week, I’ve been recording the audiob0ok for Better Than Before. I did this once before, for The Happiness Project, and once again, it was an interesting, unsettling process.

Here’s what I learned about myself and my book:

1. I can’t stand the sound of my own voice. Whenever they replayed aloud something I’d read, I had to leave the room.

2. My fear of finding typos was largely unnecessary. I found a few minor typos: in two places, a missing m-dash in front of an author attribution at the beginning of a chapter, and one reversed single-quote mark. If you buy the book, see if you can spot these. (Newsflash: my editor says we may be able to fix these, in the nick of time! Stay tuned.)

3. I have a growly stomach, even when I’m not hungry. Several times, I had to re-read a sentence because “stomach noises” could be heard. But turns out that I’m not the only one with a loud stomach. Look in the photo. See how I’m sitting with a pillow in front of my stomach? They keep the pillow there, for just this reason.

4. I have a hard time saying the phrase “video arcade.” Video arcade. Video arcade. Video arcade.

5. I’ve been mispronouncing the name “Archilochus” my whole life. Not that it comes up very often. But still. (If you’re thinking, “Gretchen, why did you mention Archilochus?” it’s because I quote the line that I love: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

6. Something happened when I read the b0ok aloud: loss of meaning. This is an uncomfortable stage that I pass through with every book, at the end of the process. I’m reading the book, and I start thinking, “This writing makes no sense. This book is a string of non sequiturs. How will anyone have any idea what I’m talking about?” But other people seem to understand the book just fine. Just as my name starts to sound like gibberish, if I say it over and over, I guess that on the 100th reading of a book, it starts to dissolve into nothingness. I have to trust myself, that what I wrote makes sense.

Many listeners wrote to me to say that they were disappointed that I didn’t read the audiobook of Happier at Home. I didn’t do that book myself — though I’d read The Happiness Project — because someone convinced me that listeners enjoy the experience more when a book is read by a professional. But in my case, at least, it seems as though many people preferred to hear me read it.

I enjoy doing the recording myself. It feels so…professional.

Do you listen to audiobooks? I read somewhere that most audiobooks are listened to in the car, but that people are starting to listen to them in more places. My younger daughter loves audiobooks; she listens to them before she goes to sleep.

Why Rewarding Yourself May Be a Bad Idea, for Habits.

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.)

Here, I talk about the Strategy of Rewards. I have to say, this is one of trickiest aspects of habits. There’s definitely a place for reward, but we have to think about it very carefully.


Rewarding good behavior sounds like a sensible idea—on the surface. But rewards have very complex consequences.

Rewards can actually undermine habits, so if I want to make a habit, I must use rewards in a very careful, limited way. It’s ironic: studying the Strategy of Reward means studying why we should mostly avoid using reward.

Have you ever had an experience where you rewarded yourself for cultivating a good habit, and then it backfired? Or have you successfully used a reward to take yourself deeper into a habit?

Revealed! Book Club Choices for December.

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,, 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:

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Buy from WORD;; Amazon.

An outstanding children’s book:

Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen

Buy from WORD;; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

The Official Preppy Handbook edited by Lisa Birnbach 

Buy from WORD;; 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? Switch by Chip and Dan Heath; The Animal Family, by Randall Jarrell; A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean. So good!

One last note: if you’re buying books as holiday gifts, let me self-promotingly suggest…

The Happiness Project: #1 New York Times bestseller, on the list for more than two years. Read an excerpt; buy here.

Happier at Home: New York Times bestseller; my sister says this is my best book. Read an excerpt; buy here.

Plus I can’t resist making a plug for Better Than Before, my book about how we change our habits, which is now available for pre-order.

If you’re inclined to buy it, I’d really appreciate it if you’d pre-order.

Pre-orders build support for a book, by creating buzz among booksellers, the media, and the publisher. Pre-orders really matterBuy from your favorite indie (Rainy Day Books is my fabulous hometown indie), tell your library you’d like to read it, or go here: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, iBooks.

End of commercial. Happy December, and happy reading.


8 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Relatives During the Holidays.

Back by popular demand: dealing with difficult relatives over the holidays.

Holidays can be tough. Some people love them; some people dread them.

I thought a lot about the holidays as I was writing Happier at Home, because the holiday season tends to be a time when we focus on home. Maybe you’re going “home” the way I go home to Kansas City for Christmas–which may be fun for you, or not. Maybe you’re deciding how to decorate your home. Maybe you’re making an effort to arrange the holidays the way you experienced them as a child–or the opposite. Maybe you’re feeling sad, or happy, about whom you will or won’t be seeing.

From talking to people, it seems that one of the biggest happiness challenges of the holidays is dealing with difficult relatives. You want to have a nice dinner, but Uncle Bobby makes you crazy. What to do?

1. Ahead of time, spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to behave. If you’ve had unpleasant experiences in the past, think about why they were unpleasant and what you could do to change the dynamics of the situation. Get more sleep. Give yourself more travel time. Pick a seat far away from Uncle Bobby. In particular…

2. Think about how topics that seem innocuous to you might upset someone else. You may think you’re showing a polite interest, but some questions will rub a person the wrong way: “So do you have a girlfriend yet?” “When are you two going to get married/start a family?” “Didn’t you give up smoking?” “Can you afford that?” “When are you going to get a real job?” Show an interest with more open-ended questions, like “What are you up to these days?” or “What’s keeping you busy?” Also…

3. Dodge strife. Some families enjoy arguing passionately amongst themselves; however, most don’t handle arguments very well. If you know Uncle Bobby’s views are going to drive you crazy, don’t bring up the subject! And if he brings it up, you don’t have to engage. Try to make a joke of it, and say something like, “Let’s agree to disagree,” “Let’s not talk about that, and give the rest of the family something to be thankful for,” etc.

4. Don’t drink much alcohol. It can seem festive and fun to fill up your glass, but it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re drinking. Alcohol makes some people feel merry, but it also makes some people feel combative, or self-pitying, or lowers their inhibitions in a destructive way. I basically had to give up drinking because alcohol makes me so belligerent. And if other people seem to be trying to avoid or curb their drinking (or their eating, for that matter), don’t make a big deal of it or urge them to indulge. In my study of habits for Better Than Before, it became clear to me that many people become very uneasy when they feel out of step with what others are doing, and that makes it tough for them to stick to a good habit. Don’t make someone feel conspicuous or strange in what they’re doing.

5. As best you can, play your part in the tradition. For some people, traditions are very, very important; for others, no. You may feel irritated by your brother’s insistence on having exactly the same food every Thanksgiving, or by your mother’s extreme reaction to your suggestion to eat dinner an hour earlier. Try to be patient and play your part. In the long run, traditions and rituals tend to help sustain happiness and family bonds. On the other hand…

6. If you’re the one who wants everything to be perfect, try to ease up on yourself and everyone else, so you can enjoy the day, whatever happens. Even if the day isn’t exactly the way you hoped it would be, try to enjoy what it is. My mother once told me, “The things that go wrong often make the best memories,” and it’s really true. And too much fussing to make an experience “perfect” can sometime ruin it altogether.

7. Find some fun. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is Just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it’s fun for you, and vice versa. If the time with your relatives is meant to be fun, make sure you’re spending at least some time doing something that’s fun for you. Working in the kitchen, playing touch football, sitting around talking, running errands, watching the parade on TV — these things may or may not be fun for you, no matter how the rest of the family feels.

8. Find reasons to be grateful. Be thankful that you get to cook, or that you don’t have to cook. Be thankful that you get to travel, or that you don’t have to travel. Be thankful for your family or your friends. Be grateful for electricity and running water. Find something. Studies show that gratitude is a major happiness booster. Also, feeling grateful toward someone crowds out emotions like resentment and annoyance.

Wait, you might be thinking, these strategies don’t tell me how to deal with my difficult relatives — they tell me how to behave myself. Well, guess what! You can’t change what your difficult relatives are going to do; you can only change yourself. But when you change, a relationship changes.

Have you found any helpful strategies for dealing with a difficult relatives? What would you add?

Beware of These 10 Habit Loopholes as You Head to the Thanksgiving Feast.

When I was writing Better Than Before, I loved writing every chapter, because every strategy is so interesting.

But I have to admit, I particularly loved writing the chapter on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting, because the loopholes are so ingenious and funny. One of the toughest parts of the editing process was cutting down on the number the loophole examples I list. I had hundreds.

Loopholes matter, because when we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes, to justify breaking a good habit.

However, if we spot these  loopholes, we can perhaps reject them.

Holidays are a time when many of us face challenges to the good habits we want to maintain — and because holidays tend to involve lots of food and drink, those habits need special attention at that time.

To help you recognize loopholes you might be invoking, here’s a list of some popular ones that are often heard around Thanksgiving:

1. False choice loophole “I can’t do this, because I’m so busy doing that.” “I can’t go for my usual 20 minute walk, because I have to get ready for guests.”

2. Moral licensing loophole  — “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this.” “I’ve been eating so healthfully, it’s okay for me to eat anything I want today.”

3. Tomorrow loophole — “It’s okay to skip today, because I’m going to do this tomorrow.” “It’s okay for me to drink as much as I want today, because starting tomorrow, I’m not going to drink for six months.”

4. Lack of control loophole — “I can’t help myself.” “A considerate host wouldn’t have served something so tempting.”

5. Planning to fail loophole, formerly known as the “Apparently irrelevant decision loophole.” “I’ll just stand here by the dessert table, because the other room is so crowded.”

6. “This doesn’t count” loophole – “It’s Thanksgiving!” “We’re out of town!”

7. Questionable assumption loophole — “These cookies are healthy. Look, they’re gluten-free.”

8. Concern for others loophole — “If I don’t drink wine with dinner, other people will think it’s weird.” “I have to eat seconds and thirds of everything, or my host will feel insulted.”

9. Fake self-actualization loophole – “You only live once!” “I have to do this now, or miss out forever.”

10. One-coin loophole “What difference will one meal make, over the course of a lifetime?”

Of course, sometimes we do want to break a habit—say, as part of a celebration. A very effective safeguard for that situation is the planned exception, which protects us against impulsive decisions. We decide in advance how we want to behave.

We’re adults, we make the rules for ourselves, and we can mindfully choose to make an exception to a usual habit by planning that exception in advance. That’s different from saying, “Yay, this loophole means that I can break my habit, I’m off the hook.” We’re never off the hook. Everything counts.

One good question is to ask yourself, “How will I feel about this later? Will I think, ‘I’m really glad I had a piece of my grandmother’s famous pie. I only get that once a year, and I’d hate to miss it.’ Or will I think, ‘Shoot, I’d been on such a roll at cutting out sugar, and I blew it to eat a piece of my grandmother’s pie, which I don’t even like.'”

What are some of your favorite loopholes? #1 is my favorite. Have you found any good ways to avoid invoking them?

Better Than Before includes many more examples of loopholes, and how to avoid using them. 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.) I’m thinking about doing some kind of little book, with all the loophole examples that I had to leave out. I hate to leave them on the cutting-room floor.