Friday, February 17, 2017

Don't Break the Chain--or the Jerry Seinfeld Way to Establish a Habit

Photo courtesy Doru Lupeanu

Here’s the story as I’ve heard it: many years ago, Brad Isaac was hanging around comedy clubs and doing open mic nights, and had the chance to ask Jerry Seinfeld, who was performing in the same club, for his advice for a young comic. Seinfeld replied that the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes. The way to create better jokes was to write every day. Get yourself a large, year-at-a-glance calendar, Seinfeld advised. Write some new material every day, and when you do, mark the day on the calendar with a big red X. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain. Don’t break the chain.” 

Don’t break the chain.

Recently, I’ve put this idea into practice, with good results. For years I’ve been saying I want to sketch more, and now I have a compelling reason to hone my skills. I’m preparing to join Laure Ferlita’s Blue Walk tour in England in August, and I want to be able to sketch what I see. Back in January of 2015 I challenged myself to sketch for 31 days straight, and saw a vast improvement, so I decided to try sketching every day again. I started Sept. 26, 2016, and I’m still going.

Of course, you can apply “don’t break the chain” thinking to any habit or practice you’re serious about continuing:
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Meditation
  • Healthy habits like drinking enough water or getting a certain number of hours of sleep a night
  • Writing 500 words a day
  • [Insert your habit here]

It’s a remarkably effective technique, but it can seem a little intimidating to commit to doing something every day. Here are a few things that made the process easier for me:

Make it small

My goal was so small it felt ridiculous not to meet it: five minutes of sketching every day. Most days, I spend more than five minutes, but having such a small, and very, very achievable goal makes me pick up my pencil and sketchbook. Even when I’m tired, distracted or simply “don’t wanna,” five minutes is still doable.

Write it down

Every day in my calendar I’ve written the word “sketch,” so every time I check my to-do list I’m reminded of the habit I’m building.

Make it easy

Place whatever you need for your habit in a prominent place. I store my sketching things next to my favorite chair in our family room, and I carry a small sketch kit in my purse.

Make it visible

Use a visual tracking system so you can see the chain. Mark the calendar day with a big red X, as Seinfeld suggested, or print out this free “Don’t’ Break the Chain” calendar. There are also “Don’t Break the Chain” apps for both Apple and Android. 

Keep it interesting

When I tire of sketching items in my family room, I take my sketchbook to the backyard, the barn, or a coffee shop. I’ve sketched from photos and from life. I’ve tried pencil, pen, and watercolor. I’ve worked on larger sketches for more than one day.

Creating helpful and positive habits can make us happier. I know I’m happier when I actually do the things I say I want to do, and the technique of “Don’t Break the Chain” has helped me establish a regular habit of sketching. Not only do my sketches look better, I’m also less afraid to sketch in the first place, since now it’s just something I do.

How about you? What habit could you develop by using the “Don’t Break the Chain” technique?

One of my favorite sketches


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Only Love Can Do That

Photo courtesy Joshua Hibbert

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Happy Little Things: An Introduction to Hygge

Photo courtesy Michael and Christa Richert

A couple of Sundays ago, I spent the entire day in my pajamas. It was cold and rainy outside, my husband and son were sick, and it just seemed so much more pleasant to drink tea and read a book than go out. I even baked coconut chocolate chip zucchini bread. Without thinking about it at the time, I was practicing my version of hygge.

Hygge—pronounced approximately “Hoo-gah”—is a Danish concept that has recently been attracting plenty of attention and popularity. While hygge is most often translated as “coziness,” Danish researcher and hygge expert Jeppe Trolle Linnet suggests it would be translated more accurately as “homeyness,” with home being a place to shut out the negativity of the outside world. You can hygge at home, or in a cozy cafĂ©, or even picnicking in the park—it’s the atmosphere that counts the most. Hygge can be used as a noun, a verb or an adjective!

Pia Edberg, writing in The Cozy Life, describes it this way: “the art of creating warmth, comfort, and wellbeing through connection, treasuring the moment, and surrounding yourself with the things you love.” And while many factors go into making the Danes some of the happiest people in the world, hygge surely must be one reason.

In the fullest sense of the word, true hygge is often planned carefully. It usually involves other people you know well or feel comfortable with, and often some element of the homemade, such a bread or cake. Hygge equals people bonding together and helping each other, especially during the cold, dark winter months. To experience hygge, stay off electronic devices and interact with others. Enjoy simple, old-fashioned pleasures like telling stories or reading aloud. Some equate hygge with mindful living and simple pleasures—things like:
  • Candlelight dinners with family or friends
  • Listening to music by candlelight or firelight (or both)
  • Watching the sunset, with or without a glass of wine
  • Soft textures—fleecy throws or pillows, flannel sheets
  • Furry pets
  • Warm, homey scents, such as cinnamon, vanilla, or pine, from candles or essential oils
  • A bonfire with roasting marshmallows
  • Playing cards and games
  • Doing a jigsaw puzzle
  • Making gifts or cards
  • Hand writing a letter

Hygge traditionally involves togetherness, but why not create that cozy feeling even when you’re alone? Slowing down, pausing, relaxing, taking time to think about what you love and value, and making time to enjoy those things is hygge-ligt, or hygge-like.

Prudy is a hygge expert

Hygge is all about simple pleasures, about helping people make it through a cold, dark, and difficult time, such as a Scandinavian winter. I can’t think of a more Catching Happiness-like concept! 

What simple pleasures contribute to a feeling of hygge for you?

If you want to explore hygge in more detail, check out the following books:

The Cozy Life, Pia Edberg


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Formation of Love

Photo courtesy markrussellmc

Introduction by Ted Kooser: We constantly compare one thing with another, or attempt to, saying, “Well, you know, love is’s like...well, YOU know what it's like.” Here Bob King, who lives in Colorado, takes an original approach and compares love to the formation of rocks.


I know the origin of rocks, settling
out of water, hatching crystals
from fire, put under pressure
in various designs I gathered
pretty, picnic after picnic.

And I know about love, a little,
igneous lust, the slow affections
of the sedimentary, the pressure
on earth out of sight to rise up
into material, something solid
you can hold, a whole mountain,
for example, or a loose collection
of pebbles you forgot you were keeping.

Reprinted from the Marlboro Review, Issue 16, 2005, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2005 by Robert King, whose prose book, Stepping Twice Into the River: Following Dakota Waters, appeared in 2005 from The University Press of Colorado. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. The column does not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

One Simple Definition of Happiness

“Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”
—William Butler Yeats


Friday, January 27, 2017

Four Ways to Reduce Anxiety and Worry

For the past week, I’ve found myself waking every morning from anxious dreams. I’m OK during the day when I can use my conscious mind to relax, but by night, my subconscious takes over…and evidently it’s worried. I suspect this is a reaction to the level of anxiety in my nation and the world right now. While I can’t seem to help being anxious and worried about the future, I realize that those feelings are completely useless and are robbing me of joy. Maybe you feel the same? So I’ve been actively trying to reduce my anxiety levels instead of pretending things are fine or simply distracting myself. Here are four things I’m doing to combat anxious feelings:

  1. Accept that yes, I live in troubled times. There is suffering, hate, misogyny, fear. This, sadly, is nothing new. We will always have to fight the darkness if we don’t want it to overcome the light. 
  1. Refuse to add to the darkness by expressing hate for people or institutions I don’t like or disagree with. (Yes, I’m allowed to dislike and disagree—but I don’t have to express my opinions and feelings in a bombastic, dogmatic way.) Don’t add to my fear by reading and watching lots of news. Avoid lengthy discussions about problems the world faces. When I do choose to read the news, I choose the most unbiased sources I can find, look for context, and don’t accept stories without verifying.  I don’t bother with sources that specialize in half-truths or click bait, even if they’re primarily intended as entertainment.
  1. Support my body, mind, and spirit with uplifting, anxiety-reducing simple pleasures. Use my essential oils to calm anxiety and support my immune system. Be present and mindful. Enjoy the cooler weather we’re having by walking more, and opening the windows for some fresh air (I rarely do that here because of the humidity). Spend extra time with Tank, my four-legged therapist. Listen to happy music while working. Read a good book. (Check out Belle’s list of spirit lifting books here and mine here.)
  1. Look for ways to spread kindness and happiness. Encourage others, donate money, be a good citizen. Be kind, help out, stay positive. Don’t give up on looking and hoping for the best.
There’s nothing ground-breaking here, but that doesn’t mean these practices are either easy or worthless. They are within my power to do, as so many other things are not.

As Corrie ten Boom said, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” Now if only I could convince my subconscious of that.

How do you soothe yourself when you feel anxious?


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Sweetness of Water

Photo courtesy Andreas Nusko

Introduction by Ted Kooser: My maternal grandparents got their drinking water from a well in the yard, and my disabled uncle carried it sloshing to the house, one bucket of hard red water early every morning. I couldn’t resist sharing this lovely little poem by Minnesota poet, Sharon Chmielarz.

New Water

All those years—almost a hundred—
the farm had hard water.
Hard orange. Buckets lined in orange.
Sink and tub and toilet, too,
once they got running water.
And now, in less than a lifetime,
just by changing the well’s location,
in the same yard, mind you,
the water’s soft, clear, delicious to drink.
All those years to shake your head over.
Look how sweet life has become;
you can see it in the couple who live here,
their calmness as they sit at their table,
the beauty as they offer you new water to drink.

Reprinted by permission of Sharon Chmielarz, whose most recent collection of poems is “The Rhubarb King,” Loonfeather Press, 2006. Copyright © 2006 by Sharon Chmielarz. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.