Celeste Headlee: “If It’s a Habit that I Don’t Really Want to Do, I Need to Get It Done in the Morning.”

Portrait of Celeste Headlee

Celeste Headlee is an award-winning journalist and the bestselling author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter. In her twenty-year career in public radio, she has anchored shows such as Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and The Takeaway.

Her new book is Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Celeste about happiness, habits, and productivity.

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

Celeste: Walking my dog, and it’s most effective when I leave my phone at home. I bought this house last year, and I told the real estate agent that I wanted a home that was no more than a couple blocks from a park with trails, and that’s exactly what I bought. I walk my dog for more than an hour every day, and I often leave my phone at home. I also added a front porch to the house, and I love to sit out there in the evenings and just watch the people and the squirrels on my street. 

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

I know that happiness is wonderful, but it is temporary by definition. Happiness is an emotion, not a state of being. Like any emotion, it’s dangerous to identify too closely with it. In other words, if you feel angry, that’s just an emotion; it’s doesn’t mean you are an angry person. And if you feel happy, it doesn’t mean you’re a happy person, expected to be positive and happy all the time. I know that chasing happiness is a frustrating endeavor, since the emotion will come and then go, but pursuing well-being is both achievable and productive. You can be in a state of well-being even when you feel sad.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that technology is not to blame for our obsession with productivity and efficiency. This all started more than 250 years ago and has simply intensified with each ensuing generation. That was a revelation to me. I expected to discover that my smartphone was making me stressed, but putting the phone in a drawer for almost a month didn’t solve the problem. 

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

Last year, I vastly reduced the amount of sugar I ate, not just in sweets and desserts, but even in bread and salad dressing and all the other places where sugar hides. I did it with baby steps, which is how I make almost all of my habits. I make incremental goals. In this case, I started by having one sugar-free day a week, then I added having no candy, then I added a second no-sugar day, and then added a goal of no more than one bite of any sugary dessert, and I went from there. Eventually, I gave sugar up almost entirely. 

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

I’m a Questioner, for sure, which means journalism was always a good fit for me. I’m more likely to stick to a new habit if I’ve researched it and am convinced it’s the smartest plan, backed by solid evidence. I’ve never been one for reading about what “all successful CEOs do” and taking on someone else’s habits. I need to know that strategy serves me and is backed by research. 

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

If it’s a habit that I don’t really want to do, I need to get it done in the morning. If I wait until the afternoon to do something that I don’t particularly like, it often won’t happen. Also, if I’m doing it alone, it is much harder. 

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

I always keep in mind a quote from the Dalai Lama: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” That works for me because being kind doesn’t just refer to how you treat others, but also how you treat yourself. 

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

I was really moved by the book Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself. I grew up in a difficult and emotionally abusive household and have always struggled with insecurity. That book was so honest and so compassionate; I felt Anneli Rufus was speaking directly to me. Not only is it well researched, but it includes specific, actionable strategies that actually work to silence the judging voice in my head, or at least to lower the volume. 

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

I’d love to kill the myth of multitasking, both that it’s possible (the human brain cannot really multitask) and that it helps us get more done (the results are almost entirely the opposite). If you’re doing a relatively mindless and repetitive task, like washing dishes or folding laundry, then your brain is mostly able to do something else like talk on the phone or watch a movie. Otherwise, the attempt to multitask not only puts such a strain on our minds that our IQ falls by 10 to 12 points, but it can do cognitive damage over time. People who regularly try to multitask end up struggling to focus and retain information. Multitasking needs to die. We do our best work when we do one thing at a time. You can do this, even if you are ADD, like me. Simply do one thing at a time for very short periods, like 3-5 minutes. 

More on: Celeste Headlee.

Author portrait (c)Tamzin B. Smith Portrait Photography



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