Drumroll, Please…Announcing the Title of My Forthcoming Book on Habits.

I may have mentioned that I’ve been struggling to find a new title for my forthcoming book on habits. At last, I have a title, and it’s better than before. In fact, it’s…Better than Before!

Better than Before: Making and Breaking Our Everyday Habits to Be Happier, Stronger, and More Productive (Really).

The subtitle may change a bit, but that’s the idea.

I hope you like the title, but if you don’t — please, don’t tell me. Done is done, and nothing suits everyone. We must beware the power of the negativity bias.

If you’d like to hear when Better than Before goes on sale, sign up here.

It’s such a relief to have that settled. I’m just about done editing, too. Next hurdle: the cover. Yikes. Getting a great cover is so important, and so tough. Wish me luck.

This milestone reminds me to say thank you, dear readers, as always, for your thoughtful comments here on the blog. My understanding of the subject is much deeper than it would have been if I hadn’t heard from so many of you, on so many different aspects of your habit-formation experiences.

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“Truly to Enjoy Bodily Warmth, Some Small Part of You Must Be Cold.”

“Truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast.  Nothing exists in itself.  If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.”

–Herman Melville, Moby Dick

This explains one of the joys of camping.

Agree, disagree?

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“If I Didn’t Take Drastic Steps I Wasn’t Going To Be Around for My Son.”

I’m writing my next book, Better than Before, about how we make and break habits– an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To hear when Better than Before goes on sale, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Angela Peinado:

I believed myself to be Wonder Woman and loved when people used to say “I don’t know how you do it all.” I would never say “no” to anything. I loved the recognition and praise. This Wonder Woman Habit came tumbling down fast and hard. I found myself working a 40 hour/week job, teaching one or two nights a week, finishing up my dissertation, part of my son’s school advisory council, home room mom, volunteering for a large community event, on top of being a wife and mom.


I was feeling stress and the beginning stages of anxiety. My sleep habits were out of whack, not to mention my eating schedule. I had gone to the doctor because I wasn’t feeling good (wonder why), and she starting asking me questions about my daily habits. She almost flipped off her stool and said I had to let some things go. I walked out saying OK but then didn’t do a thing (except added on a church committee).


One day, every single thing I was doing either had questions I needed to answer, problem to address, or deadlines for that day. I just lost it and felt this thing happening inside me but couldn’t tell what. My heart was beating fast, had shaky palms, and felt this exhaustion I never had before. My first thought was I was having a stroke. Nope! It was a full fledged panic attack. My doctor then said if I didn’t take drastic steps I was not going to be around for my son. Talk about a wake up call.


I refocused my life, read well-being books, meditated, took some me time, and learned how to relax. Slowly the Wonder Woman habit wants to sneak up but I have to learn I can say no. This was a tough habit to break, since I had been doing it as long as I had. Slowly my life is becoming something I am proud of and do not care what others may say or think. This was the toughest habit to break and it took a long time to recover, but I did and and work hard each day to be mindful and find that balance.

This is what I call the Strategy of the Lightning Bolt.

Discussions of habit-change often emphasize the importance of repeating an action, over and over, until it becomes automatic, and such repetition does indeed help to form habits. However, it’s also true that sometimes we’re hit by a lightning bolt that transforms our habits. We encounter some new idea, and suddenly a new habit replaces a longstanding habit. The Strategy of the Lightning Bolt takes its power from knowledge, beliefs, and ideas.

The Lightning Bolt is a highly effective strategy, but unfortunately, it’s rare, and practically impossible to invoke on command.

A milestone event, whether positive or negative—a panic attack, as in this example, or a marriage, a diagnosis, an anniversary, hitting bottom, a birthday, an accident, a midlife crisis, a long journey taken alone—often triggers a Lightning Bolt, because we’re smacked with some new idea that jolts us into change.

Have you ever been hit by the Lightning Bolt, and found that your habits changed — whether gradually, as in this example, or perhaps even overnight?

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A Few Reasons Why It’s Hard to Know How Much We’re Eating.

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

Today: A partial list of why it’s hard to monitor how much we’re eating.

The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting piece today, The Problem with Portions: From Applebee’s to Yoplait, Food Makers Struggle to Find the Size That Sells.

It caught my eye, because I’ve thought a lot about portion sizes as part of my research for my forthcoming book on how we make and break habits. In that book, I identify all the strategies we can use to shape our habits. To find out when the book goes on sale, you can sign up here.

Portion size is an issue for the Strategy of Monitoring. Monitoring is one of the four “Pillars of Habits,” along with the Strategies of Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability. The Strategy of Monitoring 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. People who keep close track of just about anything tend to do a better job of managing it.

But several aspects of eating that make monitoring difficult. Consider just a few observations:

1. It’s often surprisingly hard to gauge “one serving.” We’re poor judges of how much we’re eating, and studies suggest that we can eat servings that are about 20% bigger or smaller than a “serving size” without realizing it. Also, in what’s called “unit bias,” we tend to finish a serving if it seems like a natural portion of “one,” and we tend to take one serving, no matter what the size. In a study where people could help themselves to big pretzels, people took one; when people were instead offered big pretzels cut in half, they took one half-pretzel.

2. Consuming something from the container makes it impossible to monitor how much we’re taking. Whether the product is candy or shampoo or cat food, the bigger the package, the more people use. (In what seems like an aspect of the same principle, I’ve noticed that I finish books faster when I have a bigger stack from the library.)

3. Many ways of consuming food involve multiple bite-sized servings, such as dim sum, tapas, hors d’oeuvres, petit fours, appetizers ordered for the table, which makes it hard to know how much we’re eating — which is likely part of the appeal. One way to monitor in such situations? Save the evidence left behind: the pile of bones, the peanut shells, the candy wrappers, the day’s coffee cups or soda cans or beer bottles.

4. We often tell ourselves that something doesn’t “count.” Ah, that popular “This doesn’t count” loophole, as described in the hilarious Strategy of Loophole-Spotting! Taking bites while cooking, eating off a child’s plate, sharing an order of dessert…

5. Context matters. One study of package design showed that people avoid the smallest and largest beverage sizes; therefore, if the smallest drink size is dropped, or a larger drink size is added (such as the Starbucks Trenta), people adjust their choices upward.

If you’re interested in the psychology of portion sizes, check out Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating and Lisa Young’s The Portion Teller.

How about you? Have you found ways to monitor portion size — or identified situations that make it difficult to monitor?

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Andre Agassi and the Odd Energy around a Finish Line.

Agassi extravaganza continues.

I recently read tennis star Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open, even though I’m not interested in tennis, because so many people recommended it to me. And I must say, the book is fascinating.

The other day, I posted a happiness quotation from the book.

Yesterday, I noted that Agassi is an Obliger (if you want to know what that is, read here), and his autobiography presents an excellent example of that perspective.

Today is the last Agassi reference, I promise. This passage  caught my attention, because it’s about the power of the finish line.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m hard at work on a book about how we make and break habits, which will be available March 2015 (sign up here to be notified when it goes on sale).

One thing that took me a long time to realize, in the study of habits: the danger of finish lines. They came up in my study of the complicated Strategy of Reward.

Setting a finish line does indeed help people reach a goal, but although it’s widely assumed to help habit-formation, the reward of hitting a specific goal actually can undermine habits.

The more I thought about finish lines, the more I noticed…there’s something strange about finish lines. They have a weird, unpredictable power. They need to be considered very carefully. They affect our habits in ways we might not expect.

Agassi captures this beautifully.

The finish line at the end of a career is no different from the finish line at the end of a match. The objective is to get within reach of that finish line, because then it gives off a magnetic force. When you’re close, you can feel that force pulling you, and you can use that force to get across. But just before you come within range, or just after, you feel another force, equally strong, pushing you away. It’s inexplicable, mystical, these twin forces, these contradictory energies, but they both exist. I know, because I’ve spent so much of my life seeking the one, fighting the other, and sometimes I’ve been stuck, suspended, bounced like a tennis ball between the two.

Here’s an example. My friend Adam Gilbert founded the terrific program My Body Tutor, to help people get fit and healthy through accountability. He told me that sometimes, people will do very well with their new healthy habits, and then when they get within a few pounds of their goal weight, they drop out.

This really surprised me. Wouldn’t the promise of hitting the finish line keep people going? Yes, sometimes. But sometimes people become uneasy as they near the finish line — just as Agassi explains. Or people cross a finish line, say by reaching a goal weight, and they immediately push off in the other direction, with contradictory energy, and seem to hurry to undo all the work they’ve done.

Finish lines. There’s an odd atmosphere around them. Agassi captured it better than I’ve ever seen elsewhere.

What about you? Have you seen unexpected behavior emerge around a finish line — in yourself or other people?

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