Gretchen Rubin

“The Tiny Actions Were Manageable, and the Daily Ritual of Writing Helped Keep Us on Track.”

“The Tiny Actions Were Manageable, and the Daily Ritual of Writing Helped Keep Us on Track.”

Interview: Marc and Angel Chernoff.

Marc and Angel Chernoff are the creators of Marc & Angel Hack Life, which Forbes called "one of the most popular personal development blogs." Through their writing, coaching, and live events, they've spent the past decade sharing their ideas for how to get unstuck in order to find happiness and success.

They're also the authors of the new New York Times bestseller Getting Back to Happy: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Reality, and Turn Your Trials into Triumphs.

I couldn't wait to talk to Marc and Angel about happiness, habits, and productivity.

Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Marc and Angel: Just over a decade ago, we struggled to cope through the most painful season of our lives thus far — this was our lightning bolt — a season that included losing two loved ones to suicide and illness, family-related betrayal, job loss, financial instability, and more. And it all happened quickly, too, back-to-back. The pain of this season knocked us down hard for a couple of years straight. At times, we felt like we had zero strength left to push onward. And that’s actually why we started writing on our blog in the first place. When we were at the lowest point in our lives, we used the blog as a public outlet and accountability journal. We wrote about our pain, our losses, the lessons we were learning, and the actions we knew we needed to hold ourselves accountable to, if we wanted to get through it all.

As we navigated our new reality one day at a time, one blog post at a time — facing the pain and investigating it, instead of distracting ourselves from it — we stumbled across morsels of strength and wisdom that we began to collect and build on. We gradually learned how to catch ourselves in negative states of emotional turmoil, so we could overcome the emotions that had once overcome us. We literally pushed ourselves as hard as we could to take one tiny action step after another — one honest conversation, one 5-minute workout, one 5-minute meditation, etc., and then we’d write about it. It wasn’t easy, but the tiny actions were manageable, and the daily ritual of writing about them helped keep us on track.

It was this painful season of our lives that ultimately changed the trajectory of our lives, gradually leading us into the personal development coaching and writing work we do today.

What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

More than one comes to mind, but the simplest and most effective one that has worked wonders in our lives over the past decade is a 5-minute evening gratitude journaling exercise.

Every evening before you go to bed, write down three things that went well during the day and their causes.  Simply provide a short, causal explanation for each good thing.

That’s it. Too often people spend tens of thousands of dollars on expensive electronics, big homes, fancy cars and lavish vacations hoping for a boost of happiness. This is a free alternative, and it really works.

What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

It took us quite a long while to figure out that discomfort can be a good thing — that discomfort can open great windows of opportunity. When we were younger we ran from discomfort constantly. We were in search of an easy life, and of course we never found it. We found the opposite.

Over the years we’ve learned that the best things in life are often the hardest to come by, at least initially. And when you shy away from difficulty and discomfort, you miss out on them entirely. For example, mastering a new skill is hard. Healing from grief is hard. Building a business is hard. Writing a book is hard. A marriage is hard. Parenting is hard. Staying healthy is hard. But all are amazing and worth every bit of effort you can muster.

If you get good at handling discomfort, you can do almost anything you put your mind to in the long run.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit — or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

We’ve literally implemented dozens of healthy habits over the years — daily exercise, daily journaling, daily meditation, and more. Adding and stacking these habits happened one at a time. Here’s the general steps we took with each.

We picked one new habit at a time, and we started very small — just five minutes a day in most cases.

We initiated social accountability and motivation through Facebook and asked friends and family to check in with us on a daily basis to make sure we were on track.

We set up simple triggers for our habits — for example, a trigger might be walking into our home after work — and then we’d perform the new habit consciously every time the trigger happened.

We tracked the tiny bits of progress we made each day by putting a checkmark on a wall calendar every single time we completed a daily habit. The goal was to never break the chain of daily checkmarks on the calendar.

Once we felt comfortable with five minutes a day (perhaps after 30-60 days of doing the habit), we’d increase it to seven minutes a day, then ten minutes, and so forth.

That’s really all there is to it — at least that’s the simplified baseline of how habit change has worked in our lives.

 Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

Marc and Angel: This is one of our favorite (self-created) morning reminders. We literally read this out loud at our breakfast table every morning. Doing so helps us keep things in perspective:

Look around,
And be thankful right now.
For your health,
Your family,
Your friends,
And your home.
Nothing lasts forever.

Gretchen: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Marc and Angel: Attaching ourselves to our ideals. This is a negative habit that still brings significant stress and anxiety into our lives sometimes. We’ve gotten better at managing this over the years, of course, but it’s an ongoing practice.

Truth be told, most of the things we as human beings desperately try to hold on to, as if they’re real, solid, everlasting fixtures in our lives, aren’t really there. Or if they are there in some form, they’re changing, fluid, impermanent, or simply imagined in our minds. Life gets a lot easier to deal with when we understand this.

Imagine you’re blindfolded and treading water in the center of a large swimming pool, and you’re struggling desperately to grab the edge of the pool that you think is nearby, but in reality it’s not — it’s far away. Trying to grab that imaginary edge is stressing you out, and tiring you out, as you splash around aimlessly trying to holding on to something that isn’t there.

That’s “attaching.”

Now imagine you pause, take a deep breath, and realize that there’s nothing nearby to hold on to. Just water around you. You can continue to struggle with grabbing at something that doesn’t exist, or you can accept that there’s only water around you, and relax, and float.

That’s letting go.

On a daily basis, when we feel our inner stress and anxiety levels rising, we challenge ourselves to consciously ask:

What are you desperately trying to hold on to right now? How is it affecting you?

Then we imagine the things we’re trying to hold on to don’t really exist.

We envision ourselves letting go … and just floating.

But again, this is a practice we have to work at persistently.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Marc and Angel: We both took the quiz, and we’re both Upholders. Interestingly enough, though, both of us are convinced that we were once Obligers. The life experiences and “practicing” we sustained over the past ten years undoubtedly shifted us from the inside out. At least that’s how we see it.

[Gretchen: For what it's worth, I think Marc and Angel are both Obligers who have created external accountability (such as their blog) that's so pervasive in their lives that they feel as though they're Upholders.]

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