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Interview: Nate Staniforth

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about expectations—how what we expect to see, hear, and experience affects what we actually do see, hear, and experience. And because I'm interested in that subject, I find myself reading a lot of books by magicians. Go figure!

So I picked up a book by Nate Stanisforth, Here is Real Magic: A Magician's Search for Wonder in the Modern World.

I just love this book. It's about the difficulties of making a career as a magician, and it's also about how the performance of magic can bring transcendence, wonder, and awe into our lives.

The experience of transcendence is one of the deepest and most powerful sources of happiness, but it can be difficult to reach.

This book also made me curious to read much more deeply in this area—what happens when we see someone perform magic? How does a magician think about that experience?

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

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

I took up distance running and kickboxing while writing Here is Real Magic because I needed something in my life more strenuous than the writing, and I discovered the incredible clarity and freedom that can come from knocking down a few miles every day. A good, long walk can do the same thing. So much of my work is in my head—writing, reading, designing illusions for my show—and countering this with something that’s unapologetically physical gives my day a balance that makes the writing and creative work better. My best running days are invariably my best writing days.

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

That you can find it yourself by helping other people find it, too. It’s like love in that way. You keep it by sharing it.

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

I’ve made my living as a touring magician since I was 23 and I’m still trying to figure out how to eat well on the road. The hours are long and I’m always in a hurry, and one can only have so many granola bars and protein shakes before it all feels a little ridiculous. When I was on tour in Australia I lived almost exclusively on coffee and Snickers bars, which is not a healthy way to exist.

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

Yes, and it’s a big one. When I first met my literary agent Stephen, he gave me a piece of advice that I think about almost every day. He said something like “It takes as much time to fantasize about doing something big as it does to actually do it. If you use the time you’d usually spend daydreaming about your book to actually write it, you’ll end up spending roughly the same amount of time, but at the end you’ll have a manuscript instead of an unfulfilled daydream. So, just choose to make it real, one day at a time.

This has become my working approach for all projects. It’s like a math equation: Incremental progress + time = victory. It makes the thing inevitable rather than impossible. My next book may be some way off, but I work on it every day, and every day it becomes more and more real. Just wait.

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

Walden knocked me down when I read it in high school. That line about his wanting not “when I came to die, realize I had not yet lived” is a thunderbolt to a seventeen-year-old. At that time in my life I felt as though Thoreau was the only one acknowledging something that I think is obvious to teenagers—stated plainly, that most people lose something essential in the passage from childhood to adulthood—and I was very much on the hunt for wisdom about surviving that transition more or less intact. I think most teenagers see the adults of the world as resigned, half-asleep, saddled with the weight of the world, and here in Walden was a manual for staying awake. “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” There’s magic there for certain.

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

Magic isn’t about deception. It’s about wonder. A magic show should feel far more like jumping out of an airplane or staying up late to see the stars than a night at a comedy club. It’s about enchanting the audience rather than fooling them; using each illusion as a kind of tool to create a small moment of astonishment and sharing it with the audience. I know the popular image of the magician is of someone intent on deceiving the audience, but a good magician has nothing to hide.

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In my constant examination of happiness and human nature, I spend a lot of time thinking about happiness stumbling blocks—the challenges, frustrations, limitations, and disappointments that drag us down.

And for that reason, I think a lot about anger. This is an issue for me. I have a short fuse; I flare up quickly, if I don't make an effort to control it, I sometimes "talk in a mean voice" that's apparently terrifying.

In my books The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, I write about all the resolutions I tried (and mostly still follow) to help me stay in control of myself. For instance, I more or less gave up drinking alcohol—nothing more than a half-glass of wine or champagne every few months—because even a small amount of alcohol makes me prone to belligerence.

In the course of writing Better Than Before, my book about how to make and break habits, I discovered my "Four Tendencies" framework that divides people into four "Tendencies": Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel.

(Need to learn about the Four Tendencies? Read here. Want to take the quick, free quiz to discover your Tendency? Take it here—more than two million people have taken this quiz!)

Identifying my Tendency—I'm an Upholder—shed light on how and why I experience anger.

Anger is part of the human condition, of course; we all experience it, and for many reasons. But I do think that each Tendency has a particular flavor of a certain kind of recurrent anger, and understanding the roots of that anger helps—or at least it helped me—to reduce angry feelings.

Upholder anger

Upholders are very good at execution, and they often feel angry when others struggle in situations where an Upholder wouldn't. For instance, people slow down processes with their questions; people need deadlines, reminders, oversight, and accountability; people won't do what they're supposed to do or even what they said they'd do. And this get Upholders very angry.

Upholder anger often has a judgmental, disappointed quality: "I don't want to be your babysitter." "You keep saying this is important, then you don't follow through." "We agreed to a schedule and a set of priorities, and you ignore it."

Angry cry of the Upholder: "Why can't people just get their tasks done?"

Questioner anger

Questioners need reasons and justifications, and they're angry when other people act, or expect Questioners to act, for reasons that are unexplained or arbitrary. They're frustrated when others won't give them the answers they expect, or won't give them time to do necessary research, or expect them to go along with a plan that hasn't been justified.

Angry cry of the Questioner: "Why do people just follow along like lemmings, and expect me to do the same for no good reason?"

Obliger anger

Obligers feel the weight of outer expectations. Their anger is often tinged with resentment and indignation, a feeling of being exploited or neglected or treated unfairly.

Obliger anger often leads to the striking phenomenon of Obliger-rebellion. Of the Four Tendencies, the Obliger Tendency is the biggest (for both men and women), so it's important for all of us to understand Obligers and Obliger-rebellion. You really, really, really don't want to unleash Obliger-rebellion. It can be beneficial, but it can also be unpredictable and destructive.

Angry cry of the Obliger: "Why am I the only one doing anything around here? Why am I meeting other people's expectations but not meeting my expectations for myself?"

Rebel anger

Rebel anger is the anger of being pushed around, being told what to do, being trapped or confined. Rebels do what they want to do, in their own way and in their own time, and when other people tell or ask them to do something, they resist. This feeling of resistance can spark a lot of anger.

Angry cry of the Rebel: "Why do people keep telling me what to do?"

Now that I understand why I, as an Upholder, have a particular perspective on the world, and why certain actions are easier or harder for me, it's much easier for me to be compassionate.

For instance, my husband and I needed fill out a boring bureaucratic form as a couple, and I decided I would just go ahead and fill it out, to get it crossed off our mutual to-do list (this is why it's nice to be married to an Upholder). So I called my husband Jamie, a Questioner.

Me: Hi honey, what's your work address?

Jamie: Why do you want to know?

Before I knew about the Four Tendencies, this response would've made me angry. I would have thought (and probably said): "Why can't you answer a simple question? Why can't you just give me a quick answer and let me get this task finished? What does this mean about our relationship?" etc.

But now I know better. Jamie is a Questioner, and Questioners just need to know why. I don't need to be angry. I can just engage him in a more productive way.

Me: Hi honey, I'm filling out that boring bureaucratic form. What's your work address?

Jamie: Answer.

Because here's the thing: I was angry at him, and he was angry at me. Now that we understand each other better, the anger goes away, the task gets done more easily, and love reigns supreme.

Do you struggle with anger? Do you find that your Tendency helps explain some aspects of your anger—and does that knowledge help you?

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For more than two years now, every Monday morning, I've posted a photo on my Facebook Page of the books I finished during the week, with the tag #GretchenRubinReads

I get a big kick out of this weekly habit—it’s a way to shine a spotlight on all the terrific books that I’ve read.

As I write about in my book Better Than Before, for most of my life, my habit was to finish any book that I started. Finally, I realized that this approach meant that I spent time reading books that bored me, and I had less time for books that I truly enjoy. These days, I now put down a book if I don’t feel like finishing it, so I have more time to do my favorite kinds of reading.

This habit means that if you see a book included in the #GretchenRubinReads photo, you know that I liked it well enough to read to the last page.

If you’d like more ideas for habits to help you get more reading done, read this post or download my "Reading Better Than Before" worksheet.

You can also follow me on Goodreads where I've recently started tracking books I’ve read.

If you want to see what I read last month, the full list is here.

June 2019 Reading:

The Very Worst Missionary by Jamie Wright -- I recently met Jamie Wright at a conference, and when she told me about her memoir, I made a note to track it down. A fascinating account her life, what led her to become a Christian missionary in Costa Rica—and her reflections on that experience, afterward.

Aphorisms by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach -- How I love aphorisms! I read them constantly, I collect them. How had I never heard of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach? This collection is short yet extraordinary. I copied so many of them into my master document.

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam -- I love Gardam's adult fiction (e.g., Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, Last Friends), so was surprised to realize that I'd never read her young-adult fiction. Very interesting. Next: The Hollow Land.

Here is Real Magic by Nate Staniforth -- I loved this book! How is magic accomplished, and why does it move us so deeply? It's not easy to hit the transcendent note without sounding mawkish. I've been reading a lot of books by magicians (long story) and this is one of my favorites.

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust -- For my "design my summer" resolution, I decided to have the Summer of Proust. This is Volume 1 in the acclaimed Remembrance of Things Past (or, if you prefer a different translation, In Search of Lost Time.) I'm thrilled to be reading these novels at last, after having vowed to do so for so many years.

Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships by Mitch Prinstein -- A fascinating look at "popularity," which includes the concepts of status and likeability.

Touch by Courtney Maum -- A thought-provoking novel about the power of the senses in human connection.

Going Solo by Eric Klinenberg -- Speaking of human connection, this book analyzes the growing trend of people living alone. Fascinating. I learned a lot from this book about how our living situations are changing, and what we seek from our living situations.

Song of Spider-Man by Glen Berger -- A friend told me he was obsessed with this memoir, so of course I had to read it. It's an outstanding look at art, collaboration, vision, commerce, regret...loved it. Now my mother is reading it.

Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust -- Summer of Proust continues with Volume II! Fortunately for me, I have a friend who is a Proust scholar (Caroline Weber, Proust's Duchess); we're having coffee in a week so I can talk Proust with a real expert.

The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton -- Last month I read Hamilton's award-winning children's novel M. C. Higgins, the Great, and I was so intrigued by it that I'm reading through more Hamilton—next, Zeely. This one is a thriller with lots of history, lots of twists. Loved it. I'm surprised Hamilton isn't better known today.

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong -- My sister Elizabeth recommended this book to me when we were in Minneapolis for our live Happier show. We didn't get to see Mary's house or the famous statue, but that trip definitely ignited my curiosity about the history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists by James Geary -- I love aphorisms (see above). This giant collection took weeks to read. Even an enthusiast like me can only read so many aphorisms at a time.

The Perfect Meal by Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman -- a fascinating look at the scientific research behind the experience of eating in a restaurant—everything from menu design, to weight of cutlery, to color of plate, to the way food is described. Fun fact: if you're eating Pad Thai in a restaurant in the U.S., ketchup is probably a key ingredient.Who knew?

Announcement: Remember, for the Happier Podcast Book Club, we'll discuss Lisa Brennan Jobs's fascinating memoir Small Fry during episode 230, which will go live on July 17. If you prefer to read a paperback, the paperback is now available. Send us your questions or comments! If you choose to read along, you can post your questions and comments here on this blog post, on #happierpodcastbookclub or email us at podcast@gretchenrubin.com.
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Interview: Rob Walker

Rob Walker is a journalist who writes about design, technology, business, and the arts, among other things. He's been a columnist for the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine and Lifehacker, and has written several books, and has several fascinating side projects.

I'm interested in many of the things that he's interested in—most recently, the subject of his latest book, The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday.

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

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

Rob: Paying attention to something nobody wants me to pay attention to. I love spying out security cameras, or contemplating beautiful weeds, or noting incremental changes to my neighborhood while walking my dog, or seeking out the most ridiculous product for sale on a routine visit to Wal-Mart.

There’s so much competition for our attention these days, I think these small acts of attentional rebellion help us build a healthy habit of noticing what matters to us, not reacting to somebody else’s imposed agenda. Creativity begins with noticing what everyone else overlooked. I think it’s far more productive to stay focused on one’s own goals and hopes; if all you do is respond to the wishes of others, that doesn’t leave much room for you to be an actual person. The things you notice and attend to that others missed — that’s important, that’s what makes you who you are! 

I also just find it more fun and even joyful to see the world on my own terms. I think you will, too. 

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

It’s probably a stretch to call it research, but the experiment I’m most fascinated by right now involves icebreakers. My work around attention includes the idea of attending to others—friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and even strangers. In connection with that, I started publishing and soliciting icebreaker questions on my Art of Noticing newsletter. And the response has really surprised me: People are very enthusiastic about icebreaker questions, and keep asking if I’ll compile the results somewhere. Maybe I’ll get to that at some point, but right now I’m more interested in hearing and sharing those icebreaker questions. They constantly surprise me, and I love that.

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

About three years ago I started to swim again, which I hadn’t done since my teen years. A great attraction was the way it gave me time to think without interruption or distraction. I’ve heard people say the same thing about running. And I believe Peter Sagal of Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! makes the point in his recent memoir that it’s better to run without listening to music or podcasts or whatever—to be more present in the moment rather than try to escape it. That’s definitely a major component of my swimming habit, and I’m now addicted. If I don’t get in three good swims a week, am very cranky. 

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

Of course! Everything interferes with healthy habits! Travel, work, the need to fill out Q&As, etc. I don’t think there’s a workaround on that. When it comes to noticing and attention, I think the only answer is to try to remember to work in those moments of attentiveness and presentness whenever you can. Try to convert bummer moments to your advantage: Being forced to wait in line can become an opportunity to deeply observe the world around you. In The Art of Noticing, some of the most helpful suggestions may be the ones that seem the simplest: Take time to look out a window, pause to listen to your environment, arrive early to an important appointment so you can clear your mind. These small, containable, doable acts can have a surprising payoff.

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.? 

I’m a journalist by trade, so a big part of my job is asking questions and listening to answers. There was a moment early in my career when I realized that how important it was, if you’re in conversation, to give the other person room to respond. It can require some silence—silence can be a signal that you’re really listening. Nothing is more important to a conversation than listening, asking attentive follow ups, truly engaging and caring about what the other person is saying. Too often, people don’t listen at all. We all know the feeling—answering that person who doesn’t follow up, isn’t paying attention, and who is just waiting for their chance to speak again.

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

“Treasure the dregs.” This comes from Rick Prelinger, the archivist and filmmaker noted in the book who, among other things, has made entire documentaries out of other people’s discarded home movies. I admire him because he recognizes the value in what others have overlooked, and I try to live up to his example. He’s a true Hero of Noticing.

Author portrait by Michael Lionstar.

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I've developed a personality framework that divides people into four categories, the "Four Tendencies": Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel.

To find out your "Tendency," take the quick free quiz here. More than two million people have taken this quiz!

From time to time, people ask me, "But what if I feel like I'm all four of the Tendencies?" or "I got a certain answer on the quiz, but I think I'm actually a combo of two Tendencies, is that possible?" or "Why doesn't my answer doesn't feel right?" All good questions.

"What if I feel like I'm a mix of all four Tendencies?"

Of course, no matter what our fundamental Tendency, a small part of each of us is Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel.

  • All of us meet an expectation when we don’t want to bear the consequences of ignoring it. The Rebel wears his seat belt after he pays a few big fines.
  • All of us may question why we should have to meet an expectation, or become annoyed by inefficiency, or refuse to do something that seems arbitrary.
  • We all meet some expectations because they’re important to someone else. The most determined Upholder will sacrifice her regular morning workout if her child is recovering from surgery.
  • We all desire autonomy. We prefer to be asked rather than ordered to do something, and if our feeling of being controlled by others becomes too strong, it can trigger “reactance,” a resistance to something that’s experienced as a threat to our freedom or our ability to choose.

But if you feel very strongly that you're all four, that's a very strong indication that you're a Questioner. Why?

Partly because the Questioner Tendency is the least distinctive Tendency. Upholders, Obligers, and Rebels recognize how they’re different from other people. But Questioners view their questioning not as evidence of a pattern but merely the logical, universal response to life.

For instance, during a visit to my old high school, where I spoke about the Four Tendencies, a senior insisted, “I’m a mix of Tendencies, sometimes I act one way, sometimes another, depending on the situation. If I get an assignment from a teacher I respect, I do it, no problem, so I’m an Upholder. But if I don’t respect the teacher, I won’t do it. So I’m a Rebel. So I’m different, depending on the situation.”

“Actually, no,” I said. “That’s pure Questioner. A Questioner’s first question is, ‘Why should I listen to you, anyway?’”

"What if I think I'm a combination of two Tendencies?"

Each Tendency interlocks with two other Tendencies, and a person of a particular Tendency often “tips” in the direction of one of the overlapping Tendencies.

Whether you tip to one side or the other may dramatically affect how your Tendency presents itself.

For instance, REBEL/Questioners concentrate more on fulfilling their own desires than on resisting outer expectations; the Rebel spirit of resistance remains strong, but they’re more focused on doing what they want than on defying other people. REBEL/Questioners have less trouble with resisting their own expectations for themselves; as one REBEL/Questioner remarked, “If I have nothing to rebel against, I do fine. No one cares if I go to the gym, so I go all the time. I love working for myself, but I struggle when working for others.”

By contrast, REBEL/Obligers have a stronger dose of pushing back, of evading control. The Obliger and Rebel Tendencies both resist inner expectations, a state that fuels resentment and resistance. For this reason, REBEL/Obligers are more likely to insist “You can’t make me!”—even if it’s something the Rebel wants to do. For REBEL/Obligers, even if they want to do something, others’ approval or encouragement may ignite their resistance to their own desires.

To sum up, REBEL/Questioners think, “I do whatever I choose, no matter what anyone else says” while REBEL/Obligers think, “I refuse to do what anyone tells me to do.”

People often say, "Apparently I'm an Obliger, but in one area of my life I'm a Rebel. So am I both?" This describes an Obliger in Obliger-rebellion, a very common pattern among Obligers that is very important to understand. Read more about it here or listen to a discussion on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast here.

"What if the quiz gave me one answer, but I think a different Tendency describes me much better?"

Always trust yourself. Occasionally, when people take the quiz, they answer while thinking about one particular area of their lives, and that can make the result point in the wrong direction. Or people give the answers they wish were true, or think ought to be true.

Often, if there's any doubt, when people read The Four Tendencies book, or take The Four Tendencies Video Course, their Tendency becomes quite clear—because all the examples, frustrations, and strategies related to one Tendency ring very true, much more so than the others.

"What if I keep thinking, 'I question the validity of this framework?'"

Yeah. I'm going to say Questioner.

Resources:

The Four Tendencies book -- can't resist mentioning it was a New York Times bestseller

The Four Tendencies video course -- if you want to go deeper with audio, interviews, engagement

The Four Tendencies Workshop -- if you'd like to lead a group in learning about the Four Tendencies

The Better app -- a free app to help you harness the Four Tendencies framework to create a better life. You can use it as an app on your phone, or you can use it on your desktop.

Find Four Tendencies graphics to share on social media here.

Download free PDFs like the "Nutshell Guide to the Four Tendencies" here.

We often discuss the Four Tendencies on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast. In particular, you might want to listen to these episodes:

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Interview: Jerry Colonna

Jerry Colonna has had a very interesting career. He is a well-regarded venture capitalist, and as an executive coach, he's helped many people do their best work. He's the cofounder and CEO of Reboot.io, an executive coaching and leadership development firm.

If you listen to the terrific podcast Start Up, in Season 4, Episode 3, you may remember hearing from Jerry Colonna. Gimlet co-founders Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber talked to him to help them work through some issues they were having.

And recently, Jerry Colonna's new book has hit the shelves: Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up. From the description: "Reboot is a journey of radical self-inquiry, helping you to reset your life by sorting through the emotional baggage that is holding you back professionally, and even more important, in your relationships."

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

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

Jerry: One day last year I was stopped at a crosswalk while I was walking to dinner with my friend and teacher Sharon Salzberg. I told her, “You know; I’m happy. I’m sustainably, generally, happy.”

She smiled at me and asked what it was that had helped so much. (She knows of my life-long struggles with anxiety and depression.) I said, “Well, I’ve been sitting daily meditation for nearly 17 years now. Something should have shifted by now.”

The truth is, my daily practice of journaling followed by meditation have been the most powerful tools for restoring equilibrium and, therefore, deep happiness.

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

That being happy is a byproduct of living in alignment...where my inner belief systems match my outer actions. When I was 18, I tried to kill myself and spent three months in a hospital. If I knew then about living in alignment in this way, I don’t know that I would have felt the sadness I felt.

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

With a tremendous amount of forgiveness to myself. In my book, I tell the story of learning that we each have an infinite number of “do overs.” And that, when we fail in some way or another, we can simply begin again. In this way, I developed the capacity to repeat activities until they became healthy habits.

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

Upholder.

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

My children’s needs. Even though they’re all adults now, I will forever place them before me. (And I think that’s the right thing to do.) I can be totally focused on taking care of myself and doing the things that are best for me, like meditating or exercise. But, if my kids need me, I'll put these things aside. Since being their dad is the greatest source of joy in my life, it's kind of like trading one source of happiness for another. 

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.?

All the time. I actually think of them more like asteroid strikes. While lightning strikes can be destructive, asteroids can knock you onto a different orbit. Though it's just as unexpected; it changes your course. 

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

Too many to list here but I’ll try for three:

I read all three at one of the lowest periods of my life...from Pema, I learned that all things fall apart all the time and that suffering and sadness stem from trying to fight that.

From Sharon, I learned the deep blessing that comes from internal forgiveness, loving kindness to self, and the value of a faith beyond religion.

From Parker I learned the importance of living in alignment and being truthful with oneself. I also learned to have the courage to speak about my own struggles.

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

That there’s a right way to coach people and, by extension, that there’s a right way to be. My long-time therapist liked to say that “There’s a right way. There’s a wrong way. And there’s the way that works.”

I wish more folks would focus on the ways that work.

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In my study of happiness, I’ve realized that for most of us, outer order contributes to inner calm.

Easy, quick, regular habits make it possible to manage possessions before they accumulate into clutter. My new book Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness offers tips and strategies for tackling clutter. One simple concept from the book that seems to really resonate with people is this: it’s far easier to keep up than to catch up, and with the right habits, clutter never accumulates.

So then the question becomes: How do we create the habits that help us maintain outer order?

Conveniently, my book Better Than Before explores the 21 strategies that we can use to make or break habits. It turns out that it's not very hard to master our habits, when we do it in the way that's right for us.

To use habits to help maintain order, try these popular strategies:

The Strategy of Convenience: Make it as easy as possible to maintain order.

  • Use hooks instead of hangers. (This made a huge difference in my life!)
  • Have abundant waste baskets -- wherever they're needed, such as closets and hallways.
  • Clear out everything you don't need, don't use, or don't love, so there's more room for what remains. When it's hard to put things away, we create clutter.

The Strategy of Clarity: Know exactly what you expect.

  • Have an exact place for items (keys, sunglasses, stapler, passport, AA batteries, etc.). Weirdly, it's easier to put things away in an exact place than in an approximate place.
  • Know who's responsible for what task. Avoid the irksome problem of shared work!

The Strategy of Scheduling: Set aside time to create order. NOTE: This strategy often does not work for Rebels, so if you're a Rebel, skip this one! Or do it in a Rebel way.

  • Follow the one-minute rule -- do any task that can be finished in less than one minute, without delay.
  • Observe Power Hour -- make a list of all the tasks you’d like to accomplish, and once a week, for just one hour, steadily work on these chores.
  • Mark transitions with a ten-minute closer -- every time you transition from one stage to another, take ten minutes to clean up your space.

The Strategy of the Clean Slate: Take advantage of new beginnings to foster outer order.

  • Clear before you move! Moving is one of the best times to clear clutter
  • If you're not moving, make a mock move -- ask yourself, "If I were moving, would I bother to wrap this in bubble wrap and stick it in a box? Or would I chuck it or give it away?”
  • Use any beginning to create orderly habits -- if you're starting a new job, it's a great time to shape habits related to filing, tossing, archiving, etc.

The Strategy of Pairing: Pair an activity you like to do or must do with creating outer order

  • Only allow yourself to listen to a favorite podcast while you're creating outer order (unloading the dishwasher, doing laundry, returning files to their places)
  • When tackling a big job, play fun music, have good food, ask a friend to help you -- by pairing the task with enjoyable aspects, it becomes easier.
  • Decide that you can watch your favorite TV show only if do speed-clutter-clearing during the commercials. You can get a lot done during a single commercial break.

The Strategy of Loophole-Spotting: Watch out for the ten categories of loopholes that can lead to clutter.

What we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while, so creating regular habits that shape our daily lives makes it far easier to keep disorder at bay.

What habit strategies help you create and maintain outer order? What tips and tricks work for you? We can all learn from each other.

If you'd like the Checklist for Habit Change, it's here.

If you'd like my Habits Manifesto, it's here.

If you'd like my Outer Order, Inner Calm Manifesto, it's here.

Or order a copy of my new book:Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness

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Interview: Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, Founders of theSkimm

Co-Founders and Co-CEOs of theSkimm, Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg launched theSkimm from their couch in 2012 and have built a brand with more than 7 million daily subscribers. The company started with the Daily Skimm, the fastest growing email newsletter on the market (sign up here), and has expanded to include theSkimm app, Skimm Studies, Skimm Reads, Skimm Picks and Skimm Notes, Skimm This.

Not only that, there's a production arm, Skimm Studios, which develops and creates new and innovative video and audio content and original programming including the new podcast “Skimm’d from The Couch” which reached #1 on Apple Podcasts within hours of launch, and video series including "Sip 'n Skimm," “Skimm’d with…” and "Get Off The Couch" among others.

Not long ago, I visited theSkimm's offices here in New York City, and I got a big kick out of the fact that the conference rooms are named after episodes of the Law and Order TV show, because that's the show the founders love to watch together from that couch!

On top of everything else that's being created, Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin have written a book. Danielle describes How to Skimm Your Life as "the book we wish we had when we were starting our careers. It breaks down all the daunting and unsexy parts about being an adult—personal finance, negotiating, de-stressing, and more."

I couldn't wait to hear what they had to say.

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

Danielle: For me, it’s working out. Putting aside the physical benefits, the mental clarity of moving and being active really helps me think through any challenges I’m facing. I love having that one hour in my day where I’m not tied to my phone.

Carly: Sleep. I find I can actually think through problems in my sleep. Our new book How to Skimm Your Life includes a whole section on sleep—how much you should get, what to do when you can’t get to sleep, how to avoid pressing snooze, and how to survive the work day if you didn’t sleep well.

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

Danielle: One thing we’ve both learned is that we all can define our own happiness. You can't rely on other people or outside circumstances to do it for you.

Carly: Happiness is not something you can measure against others. You have to create your own opportunities and space to succeed.

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

Danielle: This past year was a stressful one for me, and the things that had helped with stress relief in the past just weren’t working. I had never been able to connect with yoga—I could never breathe on the right beats or relax in the studio. I tried it again recently, and this time it just clicked. I developed a habit of going twice a week, and it’s really helped me to slow down.

Carly: We included a whole section in How to Skimm Your Life called “Things that Need a Deep Breath: theSkimm on De-Stressing” with tips and tricks we’ve implemented around sleep, breathing, organization, and more.

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.?

Danielle: Starting theSkimm was definitely a lightning bolt moment for us. We were both working in news and were roommates at the time. We would come home and talk about our vision for theSkimm but needed that extra push to take the leap.

Carly: I remember the show I had been working on at the time was changed and Danielle’s promotion was delayed. That was the sign we were waiting for. We quit our jobs and started theSkimm.

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

Danielle: Disconnect from energy that doesn't serve you, so that you can focus on being your highest and best power. Yes—I know this sounds really self-help, but it really helps me.

Carly: My mom always says what has to get done will get done. I say that to myself a lot.

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

Carly: We both really love The Secret by Rhonda Byrne.

Danielle: I’m a big believer in manifesting and knowing what you want in the end. Working backwards from this goal helps me feel more strategic and empowered in my day to day decisions.

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Interview: Amanda Little

Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. Her reporting on energy, technology, and the environment has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Wired, Rolling Stone, and Bloomberg Businessweek. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and children.

She has just published a new book: The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. In a nutshell: "Amanda Little tells the defining story of the sustainable food revolution as she weaves together stories from the world's most creative and controversial innovators on the front lines of food science, agriculture, and climate change."

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

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

Amanda: Breaking a sweat. My friend wears a t-shirt that says “I sweat glitter,” which pretty much sums up how I feel about the act of perspiring. I love a good sweaty run (if my left hamstring is up for it), and I probably overindulge in hot yoga. At the risk of sounding even more like a Lululemon shopping bag, I’m also a junkie for the metaphorical kind of sweat-breaking—the challenge of doing stuff that scares me, that raises my game, because that relief and happiness you feel on the other side makes it all, disproportionately, worth it.

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

I’ve gotten better at learning how to interrupt the fear of what if and the desire for what could be with the acceptance—and occasionally the rampant joy—of what is.

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

It stunned me to realize that main way most people on earth will experience climate change is through its impact on food. We’re going to see radical changes in what we grow and how we eat in the coming decades—as environmental and population pressures intensify.

I spent four years investigating what these changes will look like. My central question seemed simple enough: How will we feed a hotter, more crowded world? But the more I researched, the more complex the answers became, and they led me to many other inquiries: Are we facing the end of animal meat? Can GMOs actually be good for the environment—and for us? What will it take to eliminate harmful chemicals from farming? To build a drought-proof water supply? How can clean, sustainable food become accessible to everyone, not just the elite?

My reporting took me to a dozen countries and as many states—from apple orchards in Wisconsin and tiny cornfields in Kenya to massive Norwegian fish farms and computerized foodscapes in Shanghai. I investigated new and old ideas, from robotics, CRISPR, and vertical farms to edible insects, permaculture, and ancient plants.

I learned, through interviews and adventures with farmers, scientists, activists, and engineers, that human innovation, which marries new and old approaches to food production, can redefine sustainable food on a grand scale.

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

I’ve been semi-successful at giving up things that I love to drink and eat. I’ve phased out sugar, coffee, and alcohol for long periods—mostly without missing them. I did this by convincing myself that I’d sleep better, feel better, look better, and experience a kind of deeper vital energy without temporary stimulants. I’ve since phased these pleasures back into my life, but I relate to them differently than I once did—as occasional luxuries, things to savor.

The vice I haven’t been able to kick is meat. Burgers, brisket, fried chicken, roast turkey, every kind of breakfast meat—I crave ‘em all. I’ve spent years researching the environmental impacts of largescale meat production, and I know full well how serious they are. I know the importance of eating only local, humanely raised meats… but I work fulltime, cook last minute, mostly shop at Kroger, and often resort to take-out. Living as I do in Nashville, TN, home of BBQ and hot chicken, I’m a shark in chummed waters. The longest I’ve gone is sixty-four days without meat—until someone offered me a plate of carne asada tacos with pickled onions, jicama slaw, and a to-die-for creamy dill sauce. I devoured them like a starved hyena. I also, it must be said, have a weakness for out-of-season fruits and processed snack foods.

This is part of why I wrote The Fate of Food—I began to wonder how on earth we’re going to solve the problems with our food system if we can’t necessarily rely on a critical mass of virtuous, backyard-farming vegetarians to do it from the ground up.

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

I’m pretty sure I’m a Quebel—a Questioner-Rebel hybrid.

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

I belong to the legions of people—many of them fellow working moms—who are chronically sleep deprived. While I’ve had some success with letting go of bad habits, I’ve been less successful at adding in good ones. I know that getting solid, consistent sleep is the best habit I could ever hope to acquire, that it’ll improve my happiness and performance as a writer, teacher, mother, partner, friend, citizen etc.—but most nights, I can’t fall asleep before midnight, and my kids are early risers. 

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

Eleanor Roosevelt, paraphrased: She who gives light must endure the burning.

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

The topic of food is riddled with misperceptions—in particular, about how we’ll produce an enduring supply of it. Climate models show that crop production worldwide will decline every decade for the rest of this century due to drought, heat and flooding. Meanwhile, global population is soaring. “Food is ripe for reinvention,” Bill Gates has proclaimed. Huge flows of public and private investment—including billions from companies inside the conventional agriculture industry and outside of it, like Microsoft, Google, and IBM—are now funding new methods of high-tech, “climate-smart” food production.

Yet, most sustainable food advocates bristle at the idea of reinventing food—they want it deinvented, thank you very much. They advocate for a return to preindustrial, pre–Green Revolution, organic, and biodynamic farming practices to which skeptics inevitably respond, “Yes, that’s nice. But does it scale?” Sure, a return to traditional methods might produce better food, but can it produce enough food?

The rift between the reinvention camp and the deinvention camp has existed for decades, but has grown in recent years into a raging battle of hyperbole, reactionism, and platitudes. One side views technology as corrosive, the other sees it as a panacea. One side covets the past, the other the future.

As someone observing this debate for years, I’ve come to see it’s not serving us well at all, and to wonder: Why must it be so binary? Why can’t we do some version of both? There can—there must—be a synthesis of the two approaches. Our challenge is to borrow from the wisdom of the past and from our most advanced technologies to forge a kind of “third way” to food production. Such an approach would allow us to grow more and higher-quality food while restoring, rather than degrading, the underlying web of life.

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Interview: Sheri Salata

Sheri Salata has had a remarkable career. She served as co-president of Oprah Winfrey Network and president of Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions. In various roles, she worked with Oprah for twenty-one years.

Then she decided to go out on her own, and reinvent her career and her life. Along with her longtime best friend Nancy Hala, she has launched The Pillar Life as a way to create more happiness, success, and abundance.

The eight "Pillars" they explore are:

  • Health and wellness
  • Spirituality and happiness
  • Romance and sex
  • Friends and family
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Adventure and discovery
  • Sanctuary and beauty
  • Money and abundance

Together they co-host a great podcast called The Sheri + Nancy Show. (If you want to hear my sister Elizabeth and her writing partner Sarah Fain on the podcast, that's episode 73.)

Now Sheri Salata has a new book: The Beautiful No: And Other Tales of Trial, Transcendence, and Transformation. It's about how Sheri realized that she'd had the career of her dreams, but not the life of her dreams. And that's what she wanted to create, in her own life transformation.

I couldn't wait to talk to her about happiness, creativity, habits, and self-realization.

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

Sheri: Shockingly to me and to my mom who watches over me from “the other side”, my simplest habit that ALWAYS makes me feel better is waking up to a clean, shiny, empty, everything single thing put away…sink. I feel like I have a fresh beginning to a beautiful day filled with all kinds of possibilities.

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

For me, happiness is a choice. And not a reaction to external circumstances, the moods of others, the changing tides and blowing winds. In my younger days, I was waiting for happiness to happen to me as if there was an external all-powerful force that would deem me worthy and tap me on the head with the happiness wand. I waited a lot.

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

The hardest thing I ever did was quit smoking. It sounds ridiculous to me now—why should it be hard? The evidence is in. Seems like only utter fools would continue down that path with what we know today. But that is one powerful addiction. It took a meeting with a new doctor that said NOT ONE WORD about me having to quit. When I got ready to ask for help, she was ready with her most successful strategy: a course of Wellbutrin and the patch. And that was that. What a relief to have made it beyond.

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

I’m a recovering uber-Obliger. Always dedicated and committed to delivering for everyone else, rarely for myself. Now, I am just an Obliger. Helps to have a trainer. A friend for support. And slowly showing myself what magic happens when I am my own first priority. When I am the CEO of my own life experience and nothing comes before that.

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

Managing my mood is key. The biggest interference to keeping my healthy habits on track and my choice to be happy solid is when I fail to manage my mood. When I let myself be buffeted about by whatever is brewing around me—in the news, in other people’s lives, in the human condition. Managing my mood requires meditation, spiritual reading and attention to the story I am telling myself in my head. When I remember that part of my recipe for happiness, life is really, really good.

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.?

Several years ago, I was scrolling through Facebook videos and came across a 650-pound pig who lived in the house with her two dads. She has since become an internet sensation, Esther the Wonder Pig. After scanning her photos and watching her videos, I had an earth-shaking epiphany that Esther was the same sentient kind of being as my two English bulldogs, Bella and Kissy. In that instant, my Midwest “meat at every meal” days were over. I had been purposefully keeping that part of my life—loving animals and eating them—very separate and when it finally collided, I was completely transformed.

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

My business partner Nancy Hala and I founded our company on this mission statement, “The stories we tell ourselves are what make our dreams come true.” It reminds me on a daily basis that this whole life experience of mine is very much in my hands.

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

I was a seeker forever. I would comb the self-help shelves of every bookstore I could find looking for “truth.” Marianne Williamson’s first book, A Return to Love, was the first time I could “feel” the connection between me and ME. It was the first time I understood that Love is a force, not an emotion. And that force was what I had been looking for all along.

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