I Can Be More Effective If I Don’t Overcommit

Portrait of kamy wicoff

Years ago, I got to know Kamy when we met through common acquaintances, and she started inviting me to her monthly Salon for Women Writers. It was terrific — not only did I get to know Kamy, but I met several other people who are still close friends, and I learned a lot about writing.

Partly based on the experience of hosting the Salon, Kamy launched She Writes, a terrific resource for women at every stage of writing.

She Writes started its own press, and published a novel by — Kamy! It just hit the shelves. Wishful Thinking is a terrific novel about a woman, divorced with two kids, who always wishes she could be more than one place at the same time; a physicist installs a miraculous time-travel app called Wishful Thinking that allows her to do just that. It’s a funny, tender, perceptive novel — I whipped through it.

I know Kamy has done a lot of thinking about habits, happiness, and creativity, so I was eager to hear what she had to say.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Kamy: Every night at dinner I have a ritual with my boys: we each share three things about our day. (I used the “three things” motif to write about Wishful Thinking once, too.) Oftentimes we don’t get to three things, because the boys are so voluble and elaborate in telling their stories that dinner is over before we’ve gotten through them all. But all three of us look forward to “three things,” and when we sit down and I say, “Who wants to start?”, the floodgates open. It’s helped us form the habit of truly talking to one another over dinner, which I love.

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

The things I didn’t know when I was 18 are so numerous I cannot begin to count them. But one of the main things I lacked was, unsurprisingly, the long view. It was hard to be patient, to focus on one thing at a time, something I value so highly now. I know I can be more effective if I don’t overcommit, and that there are very few truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I don’t have to do everything in order to avoid missing something—and in fact, if I try to do everything, I won’t do anything well.

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

I have a hard time starting my writing day until I have gone through my email and answered everything I can. It drives me crazy to have lots of unanswered emails hanging over me, but at the same time it just isn’t possible to clear that inbox out every day before doing other things that need to get done! Not only that, but it’s an exercise that often causes me to start the day feeling like a failure because I’m always behind. But I have not yet succeeded in scheduling one block of time a day for email, which is what I should do.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

I’ll start with my weirdest one: I blow my hair out almost every day. It takes twenty minutes, which I can’t believe I am confessing here. I know it sounds like a completely vain waste of time, and yes I am embarrassed, but the truth is I’ve done it so many times now I could do it in my sleep, so it’s very meditative. During that time my mind is free to wander, to think about the day, to create; it’s like built-in daydreaming time. I have had some of my best ideas while blow-drying my hair.

I also love to read aloud to my children. My mom read to us almost every night, well into middle school, and I still remember all the accents she did when she read The Secret Garden. (I’m trying to do my best British accent while reading Paddington right now and am glad no one is recording me.) I think a large part of my aptitude as a writer came from listening to my mother read aloud. It’s how you develop an ear, just as you do for music, and it creates an unforgettable experience of the book itself. My boys were just rapt when we recently read The Trumpet of the Swan.

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

I would say it’s challenging to form the habit of writing every day. I was in the habit when I wrote my first book, but that book came out eight years ago (my god), and in between, as I started a community for women writers, a publishing company, and focused on my very young boys—my writing fell largely by the wayside. Then the idea for Wishful Thinking came to me (kind of like the proverbial lightning bolt), and the inspiration was enough to fuel me for several weeks. I was on fire; I wrote and wrote. And then it hit me: this is a novel (I’d never written a novel before), and it is going to take a long time to write it. That realization sobered me up, especially since the initial frenzied energy I’d had was gone by then. That was when I knew I needed to consciously work to re-instill my old writing habit. I had been writing at home, but I was struggling, so I decided to join a writing collective walking distance from my apartment in Brooklyn. It’s a great model—members grab any open desk when they arrive, and there’s a small kitchen in the back where you can eat and/or talk (quietly). It was just what I needed. I had somewhere to go every day, for a certain number of hours, and by treating those hours like a job, I got my good habits back, and was able to finish the second half of the book at my desk at home.

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

I’m a Questioner, but I was raised by an Upholder, and sometimes I feel uncomfortable going with my natural tendency to question things, because I can just feel my mother’s disapproval! (She used to get mad at me if I opened a magazine I wasn’t going to buy while waiting in line at the grocery store. According to her it was unethical. I’m not so sure.) Occasionally I slip into Obliger mode, prioritizing what other people need me to do over my own needs, but for the most part I’m very internally motivated.

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

One thing I still struggle with is the feast and famine rhythms of being a divorced mom, something I wrote about recently for the Huffington Post. It feels kind of schizophrenic: one minute you are in full frenzied parent mode; the next you are a single woman, essentially, with time on your hands. Married people are always saying to me that it must be great to have that time, but I always reply that 1) sure, it would be nice to have a day off when I felt like it, but it is not nice to be forced to separate from my children when I don’t want to; and 2) it makes it difficult to form daily routines when your routine changes so drastically so often.

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

Honestly, reading your book and realizing my younger son was a Rebel had an immediate impact on me. I realized that every time I asked him to practice violin, I was setting off a whole chain of resistance that made it ten times harder for him to do it. Now we have a system where he has agreed to do it every afternoon, and I am not allowed to breathe a word about it. It was very hard to break the habit of nagging, but I forced myself to trust him and let go, and it’s been transformative. So thank you!

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I think I’m an embracer, not a resistor. (Are those on the Rubin Index?) I have been making the same smoothie for breakfast for years, and as I assemble the ingredients—frozen blueberries, frozen banana, almond milk, nonfat vanilla yogurt and kale—I am overcome with a feeling of well-being and calm. I love the routine. That being said, I’m not a creature of habit; I can make changes pretty easily if I need to. I even put peach yogurt in my smoothie yesterday. (But it tasted weird.)

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

My children have had a huge impact on my habits. I live more consciously when I’m living by example, and they make me think about the way I live in ways big and small—from carefully reading the labels of the food we by at the grocery store to discussing how to respond to a panhandler on the subway. I am grateful for their witnessing, for their questioning, and also for the forgiveness they always show me when I don’t get it quite right. They are very kind to me that way.

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