Gretchen Rubin

New Year’s Resolution: Four tips for writing your personal commandments.

New Year’s Resolution: Four tips for writing your personal commandments.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Four tips for writing your personal commandments.

I’m doing a happiness project, and you could have one, too. Join in! Start your own! January 1 is a great time to try something new, to turn over a new leaf. Forty-four percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and I certainly always do.

In starting your happiness project, you might begin by writing your personal Commandments. I've posted about this before, but because this exercise was one of the most challenging -- and most helpful and fun – tasks that I did in preparation for my happiness project, I'm posting about it again. It's really worth doing.

Here are my Twelve Commandments:
1. Be Gretchen.
2. Let it go.
3. Act the way I want to feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out.
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.

So how do you come up with your own list?

First: Listen to what’s buzzing in your brain.
When I look at my Twelve Commandments, I realize that five of them are actually quotations from other people. My father repeatedly reminds me to “Enjoy the process.” A respected boss told me to “Be polite and be fair.” A good friend told me that she’d decided that “There is only love” in her heart for a difficult person. “No calculation” is a paraphrase of St. Therese (“When one loves, one does not calculate”), and “Act the way I want to feel” is a paraphrase of William James.

Second: Follow the metaphor.
When I was working on my biography of Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, I was repeatedly struck by the literary quality of his life – how rich it was in symbols, foreshadowing, motifs, all the elements of the novel.

I came to believe that this was true of my life, too, I just wasn’t paying attention. As Keats wrote, “A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life…a life like the scriptures, figurative.”

So you might find that your commandments would be better expressed through metaphor. Consider Howell Raines’ commandments, from Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis:

“Rule One: Always be careful about where you fish and what you fish for and whom you fish with.
Rule Two: Be even more careful about what you take home and what you throw back.
Rule Three: The point of all fishing is to become ready to fly fish.
Rule Four: The point of fly fishing is to become reverent in the presence of art and nature.
Rule Five: The Redneck Way and Blalock’s Way run along the same rivers, but they do not come out at the same place.”

Third: Aim high and fight the urge to be too comprehensive.
I’ve found that my commandments help me most when I review them at least daily, to keep them fresh in my mind, and to do this, it helps to keep the list short and snappy. I suspect that Twelve Commandments is too much. Maybe I only need two, “Be Gretchen” and “There is only love.”

After all, Jesus got down to two commandments. When asked, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40.

Fourth: Think about what's true for YOU.
Each person’s list will differ. One person resolves to "Say yes," another person resolves to "Say no." You need to think about YOURSELF, your values, your strengths and weaknesses, your interests.

Whenever I write about commandments, people post their own lists in response, and it's always fascinating and inspiring to see what they've chosen. Here are some commandments that other people have adopted. Some might work for you, or spur your own thoughts.

Forget the past.
Do stuff.
Talk to strangers.
Stay in touch.
Make haste to be kind.
Don't wait.
Action, not reaction.
Always with love.
Baby steps.
Recognize my patterns.
Be present.
Don't rehearse unhappiness. [This is one that I really need to think about!]
Live your values.
The more the merrier.
Love is all around.
Notice the color purple.
Friends are more important than sex.
Choose not to take things personally.
Be loving and love will find you.
Encourage others.
Enjoy simplicity.
Rejoice in beauty.
Deeds not words.
Slow down.
Please yourself.
Nothing lasts.
Music helps.
Only a bore is bored.
Do something different.
Consider the source.
Be the fun.
Cut your losses.

If you come up with your own set, please consider posting them. It's very valuable for me and other readers -- seeing other people’s commandments helps clarify what our own commandments need to be.

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. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

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