Tag Archives: Gretchen Rubin

Book Review: Better Than Before

UnknownI loved both of Gretchen Rubin’s “project” books (The Happiness Project, Happier at Home) and Better Than Before is a fantastic addition to the collection.  Here, Rubin explores the question, “How do we make (and keep) habits that work for us?” She shares her research and personal experience after trying pretty much every habit making/breaking technique out there. The results are funny, wise, sometimes poignant, and interesting.

My favorite part of this book is how she continues to personalize the research – she tries everything and is candid about the many ways her experiences deviate from expectation. A life rule she came up with in her first book is “Be Gretchen,” and that gets plenty of play here as she realizes that what works for others doesn’t necessarily work for her. One of my favorite quotes:

“Before I started researching habits, I’d assumed I was fairly average; in fact, I’d come to realize, I’m fairly freakish. Not everyone is like me.”

Most of us are surprised to realize that people we like and respect can be so very different from us; Rubin does a great job describing that dynamic and how it’s softened her approach to conversations about things like how to be happy and how to form or break certain habits.  And as a reader, it’s nice to see that she doesn’t expect all of us to approach these things as she does.

One thing to note: this is more of a memoir than a “how-to” book. It is filled with personal anecdotes and reflections, and readers will be happiest, I suspect, if they approach it as a chance to share in the author’s adventures rather than a place to find specific help with improving habits.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Extraordinary Time

Some-Thoughts-On-FailureSo…blogging for Lent. That went well, huh?  :)

I’m not sure what happened. I woke up on day 3 with a clear plan to write here about shopping for a new car and realizing that I am more of a “satisficer” than a “maximizer” when it comes to adding new things to my life. (I like to find the car – or sweater or coffee mug, etc. –  that meets my needs, buy it, and then get on with life. I don’t need to see and evaluate all of the possibilities before I can make a choice. For more on this distinction, see this from Gretchen Rubin.)

Perhaps my satisficer ways caught up with me, because by the end of the day, I was quite content with not having blogged. The same the next day, and the day after that. As it turns out, the shift in my brain–from living life in tiny scenes suitable for writing to just living life–has been rather complete. More so than I planned, at least.

This has been exacerbated by one big failure on my part: I denied the part of me that has known since childhood that I am not liturgically designed, and tried for the past year to live by the liturgical calendar. I worked hard to care about the seasons of the church.  But Good Lord (and I mean that in a prayerful way, not as blasphemy) I do not care. Try as I might, I cannot sync my attitude toward God with this worldwide timeframe. I am neither sorrowful on schedule nor anticipatory on demand. My gratitude for Jesus’ birth never happens in late December. It pops up all throughout the year like dandelions – pretty, but not the stuff of a well-groomed lawn.  I can’t describe how grateful I was this year when our church finally put away the manger scenes and announced the return to Ordinary Time. I love Ordinary Time!  This is (at least in my experience) when miracles happen today.  To maintain some sort of spiritual equilibrium, I need at least 2/3 of my attention focused on what God is doing today. I can’t live on a diet of just remembering things from the past.

Then Lent came early this year and simply did me in.

So I’m stopping now with the liturgical calendar, and committing to live in Ordinary Time. Only I believe that’s a bit of a misnomer. Extraordinary Time is where we really live. We just have to be brave enough to look for it.

And as God does stuff, I’ll show up here to talk about it. It’s not much of a promise, but I suspect I’ll have a better time of keeping it. Thanks for your patience as God reorganizes me. He seems surprisingly unconcerned with the metrics of social media :)

A mini-manifesto on enthusiasm and aging

images-1Are you enthusiastic or pessimistic about new things? I consider myself a pretty enthusiastic person, but I had a wakeup call on this recently when I read a post by Gretchen Rubin that said something like, “I’m really excited about the technology for automated cars!”  My first thought was, “Wow-I’m not excited about that at all. I think it’s a terrible idea.” I thought of all the times my computer has gone haywire–shutting down spontaneously, losing documents–and what it would be like to have that happen in a car was taking me Unknownthrough Cambridge at rush hour. BAD.

And yet…

I hate driving through Cambridge at rush hour. I’ve arranged my life so that this almost never happens. So what if there might be a way to do this stress free? So that those of us who live around urban centers didn’t have to reroute our plans after 3:30pm because it’s such a high-stakes obstacle course to get across town? Gretchen’s positive outlook made me consider a whole new perspective. It felt good to be curious and enthusiastic rather than concerned. Seriously, I can’t tell you how much better this little shift in attitude about automated cars made me feel. It was like suddenly, the world wasn’t going to hell in a hand basket.

It made me wonder what else I could look at and respond with enthusiasm rather than concern.

I think this might be especially important as we get older. I’ve noticed a definite drift away from enthusiasm now that I’m in my 40s. And a common characteristic of older people is resistance to change and a certain curmudgeonliness. Now, I hope to become a curmudgeon sometime in my 70s–it produces STELLAR writing when channeled effectively. But that’s a ways away. For now, cultivating enthusiasm seems like the way to go.

StTeresaAvilaThis morning I read a little biography of St. Teresa of Avila that focused on exactly this quality: how she believed happy people could accomplish just as much for God as those who are dour.  “May God deliver us from cheerless saints” was her motto. Amen to that!

This fit right in with this line of thought–I think cheerfulness creates a nice little atmosphere for enthusiasm to grow. I want more of that.  So I’m giving myself (and you!) this little bloggy pep-talk, like a line in the sand. When we step over that linebackpack200-BB into the rest of the day, let’s leave grumpiness and cynicism behind. Just dump them. They’re not earning their weight in our backpack.

Today, I’ll LOOK for opportunities to be excited about the life that’s coming at me. It may take some digging, but I like digging, so that’s no problem.  I will look for opportunities to laugh and get excited about things. I’d rather be happy than doubtful/cynical/faux-sophisticated/worldly. And I believe the shift will be worth the effort.

Thank you, Gretchen Rubin. I know you hate to drive, so I hope you get your automated car soon :)

Kitchen Lessons

We are moving to a new house (!!!) As soon as we move, we will renovate the kitchen. Not because our tastes are so exacting, but because right now the kitchen features bright green formica countertops, broken tile floors, and a white plastic kitchen sink that looks like the aftermath of when Julia Stiles died her hair black in The Bourne Ultimatum.

I’ve always wanted a chance like this. I love decor, and I even considered going to school for interior design when I left law. That dream died on Math Mountain, however – when I realized how much calculation is required to ensure that things fit into the special little spaces you’ve envisioned, I abandoned all hope of doing this professionally. Given my lack of numerical aptitude, my life would have become a giant storage facility filled with things I thought would fit, but didn’t. Thank God you can make a living with words!

I thought that this chance to do our kitchen would be wonderful, though. I could work with the people who know the math, and just focus on the fun parts – the stuff and the things!

Ten minutes in Home Depot ruined this fantasy. Walking through the kitchen section, I was completely overwhelmed. The 53d838e50fb52a31874f7c63ec44d447cabinet selection alone made me queasy – there were at least four different manufacturers, each with 20-50 styles of cabinet facings, and no clear way to discern between them. I thought I was in pretty good shape because I knew my preference for maple, but who would have guessed that this still left 57 different variations from which to choose?

We swam through a similarly endless sea of possibilities in the flooring section…and then with appliances. I lost it somewhere in the room of countertop options, overwhelmed by all the talk of granite vs. solid surface (aren’t most surfaces you’d put in a kitchen “solid”?) vs. quartz/marble/butcher block/stainless steel.   And all the pictures were of these MAMMOTH SHOW KITCHENS, with enough square footage to house and feed the Duggars. But as the Duggars are unlikely to visit us in here in greater Boston, our kitchen is a little more…intimate. One will not have to shout to be heard from one side to the other.  I just kept thinking, “This is so much money. If I blow it, and pick things we don’t like, we’ll have to live with this expensive failure, every day, FOREVER.”

I learned something in all of this: I don’t care all THAT much about kitchen specs. I’d like something that is sort of a base level of nice + functional, and I can make it work from there. As Gretchen Rubin points out in her book, Happier at Home, It’s just too much pressure to have every single item in my home make some sort of statement about who I am.

So I pulled back from the kitchen madness, and gave some thought to what I want my house to feel like. And the word that came to mind was comfortable.

I don’t want an intimidating kitchen, or a place where people come in and immediately comment on some unique and noticeable aspect of the design. I want a kitchen where people come in and, without even realizing it, relax.  A place where they’re drawn to a chair or a stool and sit down without asking, where I can set a cup of coffee or a glass of wine in front of them and they’ll start sipping as we chat, without worrying what might happen if the beverage drips or spills.  (Ditto for the pizza we’ll order, because all my friends know I can’t talk and cook at the same time).  I want a kitchen to live in, not a kitchen to admire.  It may sound dumb that this was revelatory for me (especially given my hesitant relationship with food prep) but it was. I learned that my decorating “style” is more a decorating “feel.”

On Friday, we went to a local appliance store – one of the places where the owner helps you spec out your cabinets, and his son’s best friend shows you different features on the dishwashers you might consider. It was So. Much. Better. We picked out a basic, pretty cabinet in about ten minutes, and the appliances didn’t take much longer. I still can’t decide about countertops, not because I need things to be perfect, but because when I look at granite/quartz/etc. for too long, it starts to look like so many amoebas floating around under a microscope slide in science class. So I have to decide what sort of science project we’ll want to look at for the next decade. But we’ll figure that out.

I realize that it’s a huge gift to be able to design a kitchen. I don’t want to overlook this blessing, just because I got overwhelmed in a big box store. It makes me think of how many times in life, God wants to bless us with something, but we struggle to receive it  because the blessing comes with responsibility, and the agency to make choices…and the risk that we might choose wrong.  Maybe one way to (as the picture above says) “Completely ruin your kitchen remodel” is to put more pressure on those cabinets and countertops than they can bear – to try and have them tell all the people in your imagination exactly who and how and what you are in your imagination, the version you hope will cause them to respect, love, and admire you.  I’m not sure there’s a kitchen in the world that has ever pulled that off.

I think it might be better to have it be a cozy place in which my “best imagination” is replaced by the unexpected ways real life unfolds.

And there you have it, my Monday manifesto: “The Metaphysics of Kitchen Design”!

Thanks for reading :)

Does Your Personality Make You Unhappy?

UnknownThe question makes me giggle.  It suggests a life so absurd – so thoroughly outside our control – that it’s like we’re all living in a game my older brothers used to torture me with, where they’d grab both my wrists and make me whack myself in the face while saying things like, “Don’t hit yourself! Why do you keep hitting yourself? Stop hitting yourself right now!” and I’d laugh until I almost wet my pants.

Maybe I’m just strange.

But it does seem like life sometimes plops us into situations where we end up smacking ourselves around in some way, but if we’d just push back the tiniest bit (say, by threatening to pee on siblings who outweigh us) we could stop, and get on with whatever it is we’re supposed to do.

This bizarre chain of thoughts was triggered by this video by happiness writer Gretchen Rubin, who shares about a Unknown-1conversation she had with her sister. Gretchen was worried that if she  left her job in law to become a full-time writer, she’d feel less legitimate.  “Do you feel legitimate now?” her sister asked, and Rubin admitted that no, she did not.  Which is hilarious, because  her job at the time was clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.  If that job doesn’t make you feel legit, ain’t nothing gonna.  What Rubin had wasn’t a legitimacy question, she realized. It was a personality trait. She tends to feel like her career choice is not legitimate. That’s just who she is. But it doesn’t have to drive her decisions.

It made me think of one of the (approximately 22,000) emails I received from the Fly Lady last week (if she used snail mail I’d be a candidate for Hoarders) asking “How Do You Value Yourself?”  It was a little schmaltzy, but she asked some thought-provoking questions:

Do you value yourself because of your job?

Because of your husband’s job?

Do you value yourself on how you look? Act? Dress? 

On how much you save when you shop?

Do you value yourself on how much you earn? On how much more you earn than someone else?

Do you value yourself on your volunteer work? Your church work? 

Do you value yourself on where you live? How your house looks? The kind of car you drive?

Do you value yourself on your grades? 

Do you value yourself for your hair? Your nails?  Your weight?

Do you value yourself on how punctual you are? How organized? 

Do you value yourself for being productive?

Do you value yourself for having the luxury of free time?

I tweaked some of the questions, but you get the gist. Interesting, right?  I didn’t have “a ha!” moments with many of these, but when I saw Gretchen’s video, I realized: I value myself for the legitimacy of my work. Which means that a lot of the time I feel illegitimate.  Because as Gretchen realized while working at the Supreme Court, legitimacy is in the eye of the experiencer.  As a writer, I’ve felt completely “legit” despite someone telling me my dream of getting published was absurd. But I’ve also felt like a fraud at events celebrating the publication of my books, as friends and strangers paid hard-earned money for my pages and told me how much they were looking forward to reading.  Again, if that doesn’t make you feel legit, ain’t nothing gonna.

I’ve been in church circles long enough to know that this is when I should cue the “finding my identity in Jesus” music. But to be honest, I don’t know what that means, practically speaking. Because following Jesus, while sharing several behavioral similarities across participants, plays out in a wide array of individual ways. Trish following Jesus looks similar, and yet very different, from Lynette following Jesus. (A truth for which both Trish and Lynette are thankful, because we’re not really equipped to swap out lives :) )  Identity in Jesus is sort of a yeast that works through us, touching every aspect of our existence…but it’s kind of elusive as an identity or value signifier.

I don’t know that we get to feel legit. I think Gretchen Rubin is right: we just have sort of decide we are, and find a way to keep going anyway, without the security badge of guaranteed legitimacy to keep us safe from scrutiny.  We have to stop hitting ourselves, keep giggling at the absurdity of it all, and decide: Such and such may be my personality, but it’s not going to keep me from being happy, or from doing my work and enjoying the life I lead.

When in doubt, we can encourage each other via this handy reminder as we sing along with MC Hammer :)