Former Navy SEAL and I Agree on an Important Habit. Not What You Might Expect.

Whenever I talk to people about their happiness projects, I ask, “What have you tried? What works for you?”

People tell me a million things they’ve done, but to my astonishment, the one resolution that comes up the most often — and this isn’t the most significant thing you could do to boost your happiness, but it does seem to be the thing that people most often try, and that does work — is to make your bed.

“Make the bed” is one of the most popular happiness-project resolutions, and in fact, the habit of bed-making is correlated with a sense of greater well-being and higher productivity.

I write a lot about this issue of “making your bed” in The Happiness Project and in Happier at Home — and it also comes up in my forthcoming book about habit-formation — so I got a big kick out of seeing that when Naval Adm. William McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, gave the commencement address at the University of Texas at Austin a few days ago, he specifically mentioned the resolution to…make your bed.

Here’s the video, here’s what he says:

Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Viet Nam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed.

If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack—rack—that’s Navy talk for bed.

It was a simple task—mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle hardened SEALs—but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.

By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.

If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

I wholeheartedly agree.

I also think that for many people — like me — an unmade bed is a broken window, which is why “Make the bed” is one of the most popular happiness-project resolutions, and in fact, the habit of bed-making is correlated with a sense of greater well-being and higher productivity.

 

(Now, some people say that, to the contrary, they revel in not making their beds. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is The opposite of a profound truth is also true, and for some people, a useful resolution might be “Don’t make your bed.” One person wrote to me, “My mother was so rigid about keeping the house tidy when I was a child that now I get a huge satisfaction from not making my bed, not hanging up my coat, etc. It makes me feel free.” Some people thrive on a little chaos. Everyone’s happiness project is different.)

What about you? Does making your bed – or not making your bed – contribute in a small way to your happiness? Or have you found other manageable resolutions that have brought more happiness than you would’ve expected?

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Are You Chronically Late? 8 Tips for Showing Up on Time.

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

This Wednesday: 8 tips for getting yourself to show up on time.

Many people have the habit of constantly running late — and they drive themselves, and other people, crazy.

I have the opposite problem — I’m pathologically early, and often arrive places too soon. This is annoying, as well, but in a different way. As I write this, I’m realize that I assume that chronic earliness is very rare. But maybe it’s not. Are you chronically early?

In any event, more people seem bothered by chronic lateness. 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 under-estimate 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. As I write about in Happier at Home, we have a precise time that we’re supposed to leave, so I know if we’re running late, and by how much.

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. If you still can’t find your keys, here are some tips for finding misplaced objects.

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. 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? 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.)

7. You haven’t considered how your behavior affects someone else? A friend was chronically late dropping off her son at sports activities until he said, “You’re always late dropping me off because it doesn’t affect you, but you’re always on time to pick me up, because you’d be embarrassed to be the last parent at pick-up.” She was never late again.

8.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.

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 get 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?

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Video: For Habits, Try the Strategy of Monitoring.

This week’s video: I’m starting a 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 book describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

Last week was the Strategy of Self-Knowledge. This is the first, crucial strategy.

This week — the Strategy of Monitoring. (Which is one of the four “Pillars of Habits, ” along with the Strategies of Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability.)

Please excuse the typo in the video. I see it, but I can’t easily fix it. (Secret of Adulthood: Flawed can be more perfect than perfection. Right?)

 

Monitoring is an observational strategy. It doesn’t require that I change what I’m doing, only that I know what I’m doing. This is crucial to habit formation, because once I recognize what I’m doing, I may choose to behave differently.

Monitoring has an almost uncanny power. It doesn’t require change, but it often leads to change, because people who keep close track of just about anything tend to do a better job of managing it. Tracking boosts self-control in key categories such as eating, drinking, exercising, working, TV- and internet-use, spending—and just about anything else.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood for habits: “We manage what we monitor.” Self-measurement brings self-awareness, and self-awareness strengthens our self-control. And on the flip side, anything that makes us lose self-awareness weakens our self-mastery. Alcohol makes it all too easy to place giant bets at a casino; a long, stressful day can lead to a night of online binge-shopping; vacationing with a group of friends can make it easy to blow through a personal budget.

Actual measurement is crucial, because when we guess what we’re doing, we’re often wildly inaccurate. Unsurprisingly, we tend to under-estimate how much we eat and over-estimate how much we exercise.

Have you found ways to monitor yourself — and did you find that it changed your habits?

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Do You Love Familiarity or Novelty?

I’m working on a book about how to make and break habits, and here’s the most important thing I’ve learned:

If you’re trying to form a habit, the first — and most important — thing to do is to know yourself. What works for you?

Many discussions of habit argue for one particular method — with the unspoken assumption that everyone forms habits in the same way, everyone wants habits equally, and if a strategy works for one person, it will work for everyone. But that’s just not true, as is obvious from everyday life. We have to know ourselves, and suit our habits to our nature.

You might think it would be easy to know yourself, but in fact, it’s very difficult. As novelist John Updike observed, “Surprisingly few clues are ever offered us as to what kind of people we are.”

In my habits book, I explore the many strategies that people can use to change their habits. One is the Strategy of Distinctions, in which I outline different categories of people. Often, getting a glimpse of some aspect of yourself that you’ve never before recognized, or just having a word for it, is surprisingly helpful.

For instance…

Are you an under-buyer or an over-buyer? I’m an under-buyer.

Are you an abstainer or a moderator? I’m an abstainer, 100%. This was a HUGE revelation for me.

Are you a finisher or an opener? I’m a finisher.

Are you more drawn to simplicity or to abundance? I’m more drawn to simplicity.

Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore? I’m a bit of both, but writing about happiness has definitely brought out my Tigger qualities. (I write a lot about the conflict between these two categories in Happier at Home.)

Are you a marathoner or a sprinter? (categories formerly known as “tortoises and hares,” but I changed the terms). I’m a marathoner.

And here’s a new one:  Are you a Familiarity-lover or a Novelty-lover?

Some people love familiarity; some love novelty. I’m definitely in the familiarity camp. I love to re-read my favorite books and to watch movies over and over. I eat the same foods, more or less, every day.  I like returning to places I’ve visited before. Other people thrive on doing new things.

For familiarity-lovers, a habit becomes easier as it becomes familiar. When I felt intimidated by the library when I started law school, I made myself walk through it a few times each day, until I felt comfortable enough to work there. When I started blogging, my unfamiliarity with the mechanics of posting made me dread to attempt it. But I forced myself to post every day, so that the foreign became familiar, and the difficult became automatic.

Novelty-lovers may embrace habits more readily when they seem less…habit-like. A guy told me, “I feel stale when I go to work every day and see the same faces all the time, so once a week, I work in a different satellite office, to shake thing up.”

How about you? Are you more attracted to familiarity or novelty? How does that preference affect your habits?

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“And Yet He Didn’t Know that He Was Happy, Exactly.”

“The days went by for him, all different and all the same. The boy was happy, and yet he didn’t know that he was happy, exactly: he couldn’t remember having been unhappy. If one day as he played at the edge of the forest some talking bird had flown down and asked him: “Do you like your life?” he would not have known what to say, but would have asked the bird: “Can you not like it?”

— Randall Jarrell, The Animal Family

The Animal Family is a wonderful, quiet, mysterious children’s book, with beautiful illustrations by Maurice Sendak.

I love this quotation. Yet it raises the question: Can you be happy without knowing that you’re happy? According to my Fourth Splendid Truth, no.

I agree with Eugene Delacroix, who wrote, “He was like a man owning a piece of ground in which, unknown to himself, a treasure lay buried. You would not call such a man rich, neither would I call happy the man who is so without realizing it.”

What do you think?

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