“As Soon as I Finished the Video Game, I Thought, ‘Well, There’s 8 Hours of My Life I’ll Never Get Back.'”

Portrait of Eric Barker

I got to know Eric Barker through his blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree.  It’s a funny, practical, and interesting look at “how to be awesome at life.”

His new book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, came out last month. It’s already a bestseller and has generated a lot of buzz.

It’s all about learning what makes people successful — or not — by looking at science, great figures in history, and stories from everyday life. Some of his conclusions are quite counter-intuitive.

I knew that Eric thinks a lot about happiness, habits, health, productivity, and all the related topics, so I was curious to hear his answers.

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

Eric: Exercise. Spending time with my girlfriend makes me happier, but that’s less of a habit and more of an addiction.

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

Stanford professor BJ Fogg has a concept called “Minimum Viable Effort” which I love. Since consistency is so critical to building a habit, he says to start off doing the absolute minimum — but doing it consistently. So even if I was utterly exhausted, I would make myself go to the gym. I wouldn’t work out, but I’d go. Then I’d turn around and leave. It felt utterly ridiculous but it got me into the habit of going every day. (Now I actually exercise and it’s far less ridiculous.)

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

I tend to ruminate. I’ve reduced this by using something mindfulness expert Joseph Goldstein told me: whenever you’re dwelling on negative thoughts, pause and ask yourself, “Is this useful?” 99% of the time, it’s not.

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

Exercise, meditation, and socializing (I’m quite the introvert. If this isn’t practiced like a habit, often it doesn’t happen.)

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

For me, the most effective way to break bad habits and encourage new ones has been through manipulating my environment. Eating healthy is easy when you only have healthy food in the house. I often employ Shawn Achor’s 20-second rule. I make good habits 20 seconds easier to engage in and bad habits 20 seconds harder. It’s shockingly effective.

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

Questioner. Definitely. If something doesn’t make sense to me, I have a really hard time with it. I find this helps me accomplish tasks effectively, but can cause problems in my relationships if I don’t temper it.

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

I don’t work according to a clock. Things are done when they’re done. So that means sometimes I pull crazy long hours and everything else gets shoved aside when I’m in the thick of working — including good habits.

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.? 

Years ago I spent an entire Saturday playing a video game from beginning to end on my Xbox. As soon as I was finished I thought, “Well, there’s 8 hours of my life I’ll never get back.” I haven’t seriously played a video game since.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I resist them until they’re solidly a habit. Once they’re something I do daily, it’s like flipping a switch and I get irritated if I can’t do them.

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

Yes — but generally because they were a very bad example and I said, “Whoa, I don’t want to be like that.”

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