Stop Expecting to Change Your Habit in 21 Days.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could 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.

In my research on happiness, I keep running into the assertion that it takes twenty-one days to develop a new habit — but I’ve always had my doubts about the validity that number.

First, when it comes to developing a bad habit, two repetitions is probably enough. Order a doughnut with your coffee on Monday morning and Tuesday morning, and you’ll probably find it very hard to resist ordering a doughnut on Wednesday.

Second, at least for me, twenty-one days isn’t nearly long enough to form a good habit. For my happiness project, I tried for many weeks to get in the habit of keeping a food journal, and I failed and gave up, and then tried again, and I never could get in the habit. Flossing is a challenge – though all the suggestions from these commenters has improved my flossing rate, I must say. Even writing in my one-sentence journal, which I enjoy doing, isn’t really quite habitual yet.

Because I’ve always questioned that often-repeated statistic, I was very interested to read Oliver Burkeman’s article, How long does it really take to change a habit?

According to a recent study, a daily action like eating fruit at lunch or running for fifteen minutes took an average of sixty-six days to become as much of a habit as it would ever become.

However, there was a lot of variation, both among people and among habits – some people are more habit-resistant than others, and some habits are harder to pick up than others.

I found this study reassuring. My difficulty in picking up certain habits wasn’t unusual. Fact is, habits are hard to alter, and that’s why developing a good habit is really worth the struggle; once you’re used to making your bed each morning, or going for an evening walk, or flossing, you don’t have to exert much self-control to keep it up.

The study also showed that if you miss a day here or there when you’re trying to develop a habit, it doesn’t derail the process, so don’t get discouraged if you can’t keep a perfect track record. But the first days seem to make the biggest difference, so it’s worth trying to be particularly diligent at the beginning of the attempted-habit-acquisition process.

What do you think? What has been your experience in developing habits? How long has it taken, and what tricks have you found to help yourself acquire — or kick — a habit?

* I’ve always been fascinated by bees and ants (also slightly terrified of ants, having read The Once and Future King at an impressionable age), and was amazed by this video of fire ants forming a raft to float down a river.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Seven Tips If You’re Chronically Late

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seven tips if you’re chronically late.

Feeling as though you’re always running twenty minutes behind schedule is an unhappy feeling. Having to rush, forgetting things in your haste, dealing with annoyed people when you arrive…it’s no fun.

If you find yourself chronically late, what steps can you take to be more prompt? That depends on why you’re late. As my Eighth Commandment holds, the first step is to Identify the problem – then you can see more easily what you need to change.

There are many reasons you might be late, but some are particularly common. Are you late because…

1.You sleep too late? If you’re so exhausted in the morning that you sleep until the last possible moment, it’s time to think about going to sleep earlier. Many people don’t get enough sleep, and sleep deprivation is a real drag on your happiness and health. Try to turn off the light sooner each night.

2.You try to get one last thing done? Apparently, this is a common cause of tardiness. If you always try to answer one more email or put away one more load of laundry before you leave, here’s a way to outwit yourself: take a task that you can do when you reach your destination, and leave early. Tell yourself that you need that ten minutes on the other end to read those brochures or check those figures.

3. You undestimate the commute time? You may tell yourself it takes twenty minutes to get to work, but if it actually takes forty minutes, you’re going to be chronically late. Have you exactly identified the time by which you need to leave? That’s what worked for me for getting my kids to school on time. We have a precise time that we’re supposed to leave, so I know if we’re running late, and by how much. Before I identified that exact time, I had only a vague sense of how the morning was running, and I usually thought we had more time than we actually did. My daughter goes into near-hysterics if we’re late, so that motivated me to get very clear on this issue.

4. You can’t find your keys/wallet/phone/sunglasses? Nothing is more annoying than searching for lost objects when you’re running late. Designate a place in your house for your key items, and put those things in that spot, every time. I keep everything important in my (extremely unfashionable) backpack, and fortunately a backpack is big enough that it’s always easy to find. My husband keeps his key items in the chest of drawers opposite our front door.

5. Other people in your house are disorganized? Your wife can’t find her phone, your son can’t find his Spanish book, so you’re late. As hard as it is to get yourself organized, it’s even harder to help other people get organized. Try setting up the “key things” place in your house. Prod your children to get their school stuff organized the night before—and coax the outfit-changing types to pick their outfits the night before, too. Get lunches ready. Etc.

6.You hate your destination so much you want to postpone showing up for as long as possible? If you dread going to work that much, or you hate school so deeply, or wherever your destination might be, you’re giving yourself a clear signal that you need think about making a change in your life.

7. Your co-workers won’t end meetings on time? This is an exasperating problem. You’re supposed to be someplace else, but you’re trapped in a meeting that’s going long. Sometimes, this is inevitable, but if you find it happening over and over, identify the problem. Is too little time allotted to meetings that deserve more time? Is the weekly staff meeting twenty minutes of work crammed into sixty minutes? Does one person hold things up? If you face this issue repeatedly, there’s probably an identifiable problem – and once you identify it, you can develop strategies to solve it — e.g., sticking to an agenda; circulating information by email; not permitting discussions about contentious philosophical questions not relevant to the tasks at hand, etc. (This last problem is surprisingly widespread, in my experience.)

Late or not, if you find yourself rushing around every morning, consider waking up earlier (see #1 above). Yes, it’s tough to give up those last precious moments of sleep, and it’s even tougher to go to bed earlier and cut into what, for many people, is their leisure time. But it helps.

I’ve started getting up at 6:00 a.m. so I have an hour to myself before I have to rassle everyone out of bed. This has made a huge improvement in our mornings. Because I’m organized and ready by 7:00 a.m., I can be focused on getting all of us out the door. (On a related note, here are more tips for keeping school mornings calm and cheery.)

What are some other strategies that work if you suffer from chronic lateness?

* A great blog, Get Rich Slowly, is about “personal finance that makes cents.” It covers a very broad range of topics related to finance, so there’s much there of interest to just about anyone.

* Introducing something new: Word-of-mouth Wednesday! Now, not only is Wednesday the weekly Tip Day, it’s also the day when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter
Pre-order the book for a friend
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.
(Note that various links in the comment box, just below, make some of these steps easier.)

A Happiness Lesson from…Simon Cowell? Yep.

Studies show that when people find meaning in their experiences, even painful experiences, they are more apt to find happiness and fulfillment. In fact, a happiness-boosting exercise sometimes assigned is to ask people to write their life stories. When people are asked to do this, and when they reflect on their lives in a constructive way, they feel happier.

I know this is true for myself. When I’ve been able to take painful past experiences and feel like I’ve learned something important from them, they lose some of their negative charge. For example, my biography of John Kennedy, Forty Ways to Look at JFK, didn’t sell well at all. How I love that book! And yet it didn’t sell. This was very disappointing to me, and had potential serious consequences for my career. But I kept asking myself, “What have I learned? About myself, my writing, the reading audience, the publishing industry? Am I myself satisfied with the book I wrote?” Etc. I learned a lot from that disappointment, and that was a comfort. My former boss Reed Hundt often quoted Benjamin Franklin: “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.”

I never watch the insanely popular TV show American Idol – I can’t stand to watch people lose – so I know almost nothing about Simon Cowell. But a friend told me to take a look at his Letter to My Shallow, Reckless, Cocky Younger Self, written on the occasion of his 50th birthday, and I was fascinated by it.

Simon Cowell’s letter to himself is a great example of writing a life story to find meaning in painful past experiences. As he writes to his younger self, Cowell expresses gratitude to the people he loves, he shows how he’s learned from his mistakes, he reflects on how he was responsible for some of the problems he faced, he emphasizes how he’s learned to trust his own judgment and taste, he considers his choices and why some were right for him and some wrong, he emphasizes his values, and he shows a sense of perspective and even humility.

I’ve never sat down to do something like this, but I’m sure it would be a very useful exercise. I loved reading this letter.

* I spent waaaay too long poking around Fresh Living on Belief.net this afternoon — “health and whole with two women who (usually) practice what we preach.” Great material there.

* More happiness-project groups are forming! Excellent! One has started in Toronto, and another in Chicago. I can’t wait to hear more about what they’re doing. If you’re interested in launching a happiness-project group of your own, click here for the starter kit.

Happiness Is…A Good Discussion About Happiness.

I’m a huge fan of book groups, and I’m in three, myself. In two of my book groups, we read children’s literature – the first group got so large that we had to close it, so I started another one. I’m also in a group where we read adult fiction or non-fiction. I think joining or starting a group is an excellent engine of happiness, and a book group is one of the most popular organizing principles for a group.

If I do say so myself, I think The Happiness Project would make a good choice for book groups. There’s a lot to talk about, whether or not you agree with my approach; in fact, if you disagree with my approach, you have even more to talk about.

If you’re in a book group and think that you’d encourage your group to choose The Happiness Project, I’d love to hear from you. You can’t know for sure, of course, until you actually see the book, and reading the book is very different from reading the blog, but if you’re a blog reader who wants to suggest the book for your book group, please drop me a note.

Why? I’m working on a reading-group guide, and I want to be able to send it to you. Also, I’ll give away a certain number of free early copies of the book, when it’s ready, and I’ll choose randomly from these emails to send out what supplies I get.

This is on the honor system. If you’re a member of a book group, and you sincerely believe you might be inclined to recommend the book to your group…
— email me at gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail.com (don’t forget the “1”) with the message “book group”
— include your name and address if you’d like to be eligible for a free book
— if you’re willing, I’d love to get a brief description of your group: how many members, what kind of books you read, etc. No particular reason, I’m just curious about book groups.

I feel a little sheepish about this post, because I don’t want to seem to be doing too much self-promotion, but — there it is!

* Yes, Delia is a good friend of mine, but I’d read her blog RealDelia — “finding yourself in adulthood” — even if I didn’t know her.

* If you’re interested in starting your own happiness project, check out the Happiness Project Toolbox. Lots of great tools there — plus you can see what other people are doing, which is addictive.

“You Are the One Who Must Grow Up.”

“Is life so wretched? Isn’t it rather your hands which are too small, your vision which is muddied? You are the one who must grow up.”
– Dag Hammarskjöld

* Vast amounts of interesting material to explore at Big Think.

* Join the happiness discussion on the Facebook Page.