Happiness quotation from Plutarch.

“Being conscious of having done a wicked action leaves stings of remorse behind it, which, like an ulcer in the flesh, makes the mind smart with perpetual wounds; for reason, which chases away all other pains, creates repentance, shames the soul with confusion, and punishes it with torment.” — Plutarch

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Happiness Project: Get rid of things that don’t work.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you should have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

For me, outer order brings inner serenity. I find it much easier to stay calm when my office, my apartment, and my calendar are well-regulated. One sign of disorder is to be surrounded by things that are broken, need new batteries, or need to be re-filled, re-charged, or serviced in some way.

Here are some things that don’t work in my apartment right now: a video camera, a smoke alarm (this is actually dangerous), an alarm clock (well, it works but I can’t figure out how to reset the time), a cabinet drawer, the electric socket in the master bathroom, the lightbulbs in the hallway light-fixture, and one of the phones. Plus my laptop has a huge black spot on the screen which blocks my view of the upper-right-hand corner of any document.

Each of these failure represents a task, and they’re weighing on me. Every time I’m reminded of them, I feel annoyed and overwhelmed.

I try to do an errand each day, but for some reason these these things haven’t made it onto the errand list. They’ve just been lurking in the background, inoperable.

We tend to overestimate how much we can accomplish in an hour or a week, and underestimate how much we can accomplish in a month or a year, by doing just a little bit each day. Over and over, as I do my Happiness Project, I remind myself that if I just do a little bit each day, I can get a huge amount done. If I write one sentence in my one-sentence journal, by the end of the year, I’ll have a meaningful record of what has happened. If I clean up for ten minutes each night before bed, the apartment will stay noticeably tidier. If I write a blog post each day, over time, I’ll amass a huge archive.

Look around your home, your office, your car, etc. What isn’t working? Throw it away, give it away, or fix it. Throwing away, of course, is easiest – once you’ve made up your mind that something should be tossed (which can be surprisingly difficult). For anything more complex, just tackle one restoration per day. At the end of the month, the elimination of these nagging tasks will make you feel more energized and free.

Anthony Trollope, the novelist who managed to be hugely prolific while also revolutionizing the British postal service, wrote: “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

Each day, get rid of one thing that doesn’t work. It adds up.

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I was intrigued this story in Gimundo about how keeping a food journal made a huge difference when people were trying to watch what they were eating. I tried this myself for my happiness project, and I just COULD NOT manage to remember to write down everything I ate. At the end of the day, day after day, I’d realize that I’d forgotten to make any notes, and I had only the spottiest recollection of what I’d eaten. Reading this article has inspired me to try again.

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Personal Productivity: Nine helpful yet REALISTIC tips.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Nine helpful yet REALISTIC tips for boosting personal productivity

I confess: I can’t touch each piece of paper just one time. I can’t return every email within 24 hours. I can’t maintain a clear desk at all times. I can’t go paperless. Nevertheless, I’ve found some realistic strategies for getting things done that have helped me a lot.

One thing I know about myself is that an accumulation of tiny tasks, even if they aren’t particularly irksome in themselves, combine to make me feel overwhelmed and drained. If I can keep little chores from piling up, I feel much more capable of tackling bigger, more difficult tasks.

For that reason, many of my most important daily personal productivity rules are very low-tech and simple – they’re aimed to help me accomplish the most basic tasks of my day.

1. Follow the “one-minute rule.” I don’t postpone any task that can be done in less than one minute. I put away my umbrella; I glance at a letter and toss it; I put the newspapers in the recycling bin; I close the cabinet door. Because the tasks are so quick, it isn’t too hard to make myself follow the rule, but it has big results.

2. Observe the “evening tidy-up.” I take ten minutes before bed to do simple tidying. Tidying up at night made our mornings more serene and pleasant, because I’m not running to and fro like a headless chicken; and it also helps me prepare me for sleep, because putting things in order is calming, and doing something physical makes me aware of being tired.

3. Do a daily errand, or a bi-weekly errand afternoon. I keep a list of things I need to do (get a prescription filled, buy a new toner cartridge, return library books), and each day, I do one of them. Doing one errand is manageable, and although it doesn’t sound like much, it adds up. My mother prefers to spend one afternoon every few weeks running errands—perhaps a more efficient strategy in a place like Kansas City, where she needs to do a lot of driving from place to place, in contrast to New York City, where I usually do my errands while I’m walking someplace. And while I’m running those errands, I…

4. Buy necessary supplies and keep them in order. Nothing annoys me more than spending time vainly searching for some obscure yet important office supply: a jumbo binder clip, an index card, a ruler, double-sided tape. I dislike running errands (therefore, tip #2), but having the right equipment, and keeping it organized enough so I can find what I want, makes a big difference to how much I can get accomplished in a day. Also my level of aggravation.

5. Ask yourself, “Why do I need this?” before you keep anything. I have a friend who filed the stubs from her gas bills for years. “Why do you keep those at all?” I asked, when she was complaining about how far behind she was with her personal paperwork. “My father always told me to keep that kind of thing,” she said. That’s not a good enough reason!

6. If there’s something you don’t want to do, prepare all the necessary preliminary steps the night before, and make yourself do it first thing in the morning. For example, I dislike making even the easiest phone calls, so I always steel myself to do those right away. (Check here if you need more tips for making yourself place phone calls you don’t want to make.)

7. Be diligent about “unsubscribing.” I need to be better at this. We all find our way onto email lists and newsletters of all sorts, and I often let weeks or months go by before taking five seconds to unsubscribe. But it’s worth it, to weed out clutter from your in-box.

8. Keep a daily scratch pad. You know those notes you write to yourself—phone numbers, URLs, the “call John Doe” reminders, the quick “don’t forget” notes…all those nagging loose ends that clutter the surface of a desk, and then vanish, get thrown away, or can’t be deciphered when you’re looking for them? Now I keep a scratch pad on my desk, and anytime I have the urge to make a note, I discipline myself to write it there. At the end of the day, I copy anything I need to keep (this is important!), then toss the paper.

9. Remember my Eighth Commandment and “Identify the problem.” This sounds so obvious, but it’s astonishingly helpful. For example, I like to work in coffee shops, and for years, and I mean years, I spent a lot of time running out of battery power and chasing around looking for someplace to plug in my laptop. Then I asked myself: “What’s the problem?” Answer: “I need more battery power.” Light dawned. I could buy an extra battery! I did, and it gave me a huge boost in productivity.

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How to drop bad habits and gain good habits.

I was fascinated by Charles Duhigg’s’s article in last Sunday’s New York Times, Warning: Habits May Be Good For You. In particular, I was struck by this observation:

“[S]tudies revealed that as much as 45 percent of what we do every day is habitual — that is, performed almost without thinking in the same location or at the same time each day, usually because of subtle cues. For example, the urge to check e-mail or to grab a cookie is likely a habit with a specific prompt. Researchers found that most cues fall into four broad categories: a specific location or time of day, a certain series of actions, particular moods, or the company of specific people.”

These findings seem hugely interesting, because much of what I’m doing with my Happiness Project is to change my habits and my automatic responses. I’ve been thinking about whether there’s a way for me to apply that information to my own habits.

One of my worst habits is hair-twisting. I twist my hair constantly, and what’s worse, I break it off (that’s the fun part for me). If you look carefully at the hair on the left side of my head, you can see a line. I twist my hair when I’m reading, thinking, sitting, and waiting in line. I do it when I’m feeling peaceful and serene, or anxious, or tired. It’s hard for me to see how I could use this new information to break that habit, because it’s such a ubiquitous behavior. Also, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t really want to break myself of the habit. (Hair-twisters, are you with me?) So I don’t have the will to make the change.

But I am going to try applying this information to my habit of stopping in the kitchen each time I walk through my front door. After dumping my stuff, I always head to the fridge or a cabinet for a little smackerel of something, even if I’m not hungry—without even consciously deciding to get a snack.

This seems like a straightforward habit that I could break, by training myself to run through a different pattern whenever I come home. I need to think about what I’d like my new habit to be.

Does anyone have any good tips or success stories about breaking bad habits? Or adopting new ones?

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I’ve started sending out short monthly newsletters that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.

Applying happiness-project resolutions in Paris.

A friend of mine was in Paris recently, and he wrote me an email about how, while sitting in a café, and, as it happens, helping me out by editing a draft of THE HAPPINESS PROJECT book, he decided to apply his own happiness resolutions.

I asked him if I could reprint his email, because I thought it was a great example of how keeping your resolutions active in your mind can help you make small choices that boost everyone’s happiness.

I was in the café across from my hotel. It was kind of overcast and rainy. Next to me were an American mother and her teenage/college-ish daughter. They were not having a good interaction. The mom was saying things like “never mind,” in an irritated tone and the daughter was clicking her tongue and rolling her eyes.

My first impulse was to say, “you two should enjoy Paris — how often are you going to be in Paris?” but I thought that was not necessarily going to help things. So I thought of two things: (1) how I’m very good at providing good energy to other people and (2) how much happier I am when I talk to people when I travel (I am such an extravert that I can almost feel a direct energy infusion when I have an actual conversation with people — and because I can sort of but not really speak French, I sometimes don’t talk much there).

So I turned to them and asked, “Are you guys American?” “Yes we are.” “Is this your first time in Paris?” “The second.” la la la. We agreed that the most fun way to see Paris is just to sit in cafes every day. The daughter was very intrigued by the manuscript. “Are you editing?” I explained that it was my friend’s book on happiness, that she used to be a lawyer but is now a happiness blogger, and basically gave her the whole premise.

So then we went back to our respective things and we were all happier. I felt energized, and I could tell that they had broken through their low moment in mother-daughter relations.

My resolutions include “Reach out,” “Always say hello,” and “Make three new friends,” but this kind of encounter would be very tough for me. A paramount resolution is to “Be Gretchen,” and striking up a conversation with strangers would drain, not energize, me. But for my friend, a short, friendly encounter provides a big boost – and also boosted the happiness of the people he met.

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Via the commments to a post on the always-interesting Freakonomics blog, I found a super-fun tool on BabyNameWizard that allows you to enter a name and see a graph that shows how its popularity has changed over the last century. It’s interesting information — and also a great example of data beautifully and meaningfully presented.

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