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Old Habits Die Hard, New Ones Die Easy

Old Habits Die Hard, New Ones Die Easy

It’s day three of my new practice of blogging every day and it’s worth reminding myself and you, whoever you are, that action causes inspiration, not the other way around.

I’ve done quite a bit of reading and research about forming new, healthy habits and changing behavior. I’ve also done quite a bit of changing my own behavior so I can say with a smidge of certainty that the way to taking action is to take it.

That seems really obvious but somehow, it’s not.

My friend Paul Mullin recently posted the observation that those who only write when they FEEL it, won’t write much.  Most people (myself included) don’t enjoy working out until they start sweating. Inspiration is actually caused by perspiration.

This is true of writing, and it’s also true of calling your parents, eating broccoli, taking your medicine, making your bed or organizing a bus boycott. We don’t feel like changing our behavior. Why on Earth should we?

It’s also true of quitting bad habits. If you go to a twelve step program, the first thing to do is to abstain. You stop drinking/using/acting out before you take the first step.

How do you do this? You make a commitment to at least one other person that you’re going to do something on a regular basis and then you do it. Set up other structures to support your action. I have been wanting to get back into the habit of blogging or video blogging every day for months. It wasn’t until I told my wife that I was going to do it and then she asked if I’d done it (and I hadn’t) that I finally started again.

Now I have a habit started and I need to keep going.

And, of course, it’s perfect that I am writing this today. I didn’t realize this until just now but tomorrow is one of those days that KILL new habits.

That’s right, tomorrow is….

(Bum, Bum, BAAAA)


So tomorrow morning will be different than the past 3 days. I won’t have to get up and do my normal morning routine that now includes blogging. I will have to create some new structure so I don’t kill my habit before it’s even halfway out of the womb.

(that was a grisly image)

Good thing I wrote about this today!!!

So if you have something that you want to do and you’ve been waiting for inspiration, stop waiting. Do this instead:

  1. Tell someone you’re going to do it.
  2. Do it.

I would be pleased as punch if you tell ME what you’re going to do in the comments section.

Thanks for reading and thanks in advance for your comments!


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The Secret Gift Hidden In Plain Sight Everywhere

The Secret Gift Hidden In Plain Sight Everywhere

Here’s a little fable that I first read years ago in a book called Life 101 by Peter McWilliams. I have heard the story in other places since so I don’t know if McWilliams came up with it but its one of my favorites.
So god really wanted to give humans a gift of the secret of happiness but he didn’t want to just hand it over. He wanted to hide it somewhere where everyone could get to it but they wouldn’t find it easily.
He delegated the hiding job to a group of angels and then went to play frisbee at the beach with his kids.
So the angels talked it over and came up with some ideas. “Let’s hide it on top of the highest mountain!” said one. The others pointed out that eventually humans would climb to the highest mountain and find it. Then inevitably someone would keep it for themselves.
Another suggested hiding it under the ocean and a third suggested putting it on the moon or on another planet. These ideas were rejected because, while humans would eventually get to these places, neither one would be accessible to everyone. Not everyone could swim for example.
They considered hiding it in caves and closets or in deserts or under piles of laundry. None of these places were just right.
Then the wisest angel snapped it’s fingers and said “I’ve got it. We’ll hide in in a place that is so obvious they’ll never think to look there. It’s a place that everyone can access.”
“Where is this place?” the others asked.
The wisest angel had been watching humans and had been involved in the early design meetings so this angel really knew humans. The Angel explained “We’ll hide the gift in plain sight, everywhere, right now. To make it even harder for them to find it we’ll label the gift so it’s really obvious. Then they’ll ignore it entirely.”
“What will we call it?” the others asked.

“We’ll call it The Present.”

The other day I came across this quote from Alan Watts. He said

“We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality. We confuse the world as talked about, described, and measured with the world which actually is. We are sick with a fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions, and ideas.”

This is what I realized long ago. When I am unhappy or upset or worried it’s because I am thinking about the past or the future. When I am completely involved in the present I am blissfully happy. This is why playing sports is fun. This is why I love doing improv. This is why playing music feels really good when you’re fully involved in it.

This works on the macro level. Nothing from the past and future needs to keep you from making this day, this week and even this year fantastic.

On the micro level, you can take a deep breath right now and experience the present. This is where bliss lives. This is the aim of Zen, to really be present to the present without thoughts of the past or worries about the future. This is surprisingly hard to do for more than a few seconds at a time but that’s the goal of meditation.

I’ve heard a lot of people say they can’t meditate because their mind keeps spinning. Here is the truth. I’m not sure if this is encouraging or disheartening but it certainly blows away the idea that some people can’t meditate because their minds are too active. Everyone mind is too active. You’re not special. No one can stay in the present. Let me tell you a story that illustrates that. Genjo Marinello was an old friend of mind and is now the Abbot of the Zen Temple in Seattle where I started my practice. Genjo told me once that he meditated every morning for 90 minutes and every evening for 60 minutes and meditated several times a day with clients (he’s also a psychotherapist). He said in all that daily time he spends trying to focus on the present without thinking he feels lucky if he has one or two “good breaths.” Now Genjo has since been declared a Dharma heir so maybe all that zazen has turned him into a Bodhisattva who is always in the present moment but the point is that meditation is not about doing it right. It’s about trying to do it. Tara Brach suggests that the real point is not staying in the present moment but rather getting in the habit of noticing that you’re not in the present and refocusing on it. Brad Warner, my new favorite writer about Buddhism and founder of the Angel City Zen Center which is located in Los Angeles and, ironically, somewhere in my future plans, compares staying in the present to riding a surfboard. It’s great when you’re on it but it takes concentration to stay there and inevitably you’re going to fall off.

So take a moment right now to appreciate right now. Do that as much as you can. That’s where happiness is hidden.

Harnessing The Power of Placebo

Harnessing The Power of Placebo

When my brother was planning his wedding he wanted our father to officiate. Dad was not a minister or a priest, far from it, but he did own a 40 foot sailboat. Maybe, as de facto captain of a marine vessel, he could legally marry people when he was at sea.


Click Here to jump to the Actionable/Practical Stuff at the Bottom

We did a little research and discovered two things. First of all the owner of a boat doesn’t have the same matrimonial powers as the captain of a ship so that idea was a non-starter. Secondly we found out that if both the bride and groom BELIEVED that the officiant was empowered to marry them, the wedding was legal (at least that was the case in New Hampshire 30 years ago).
Of course, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, this is true of almost everything. We humans make stuff up and then believe it and then act like it’s real. In the United States we all agree that time jumps ahead an hour once a year and jumps back an hour about 6 months later. We all agree that cars will drive on the right side of roads rather than the left side of lawns. In fact 95% of what we deal with most of the time is completely invented. Money, language, time, clothing, politics, nations, laws, rules, contracts and relationships are all based on nothing but shared beliefs. I call these things “culturally real.”
There are many things that have a reality outside of culture, of course. Things like gravity and water and air. I call these things “dog real” because my dogs and I agree on their reality. They don’t understand or care who’s in the White House or what’s happening on Wall Street but they do know that water is wet.
It’s very powerful to notice that your relationship to culturally reality can be profoundly changed by changing your beliefs. People have completely altered their lives by changing their beliefs about what is possible. If my brother and his fiancé (now wife) had been able to convince themselves that my father could marry them, they could have been married by him. If you believe that it’s evil to have lots of money you will probably not have lots of money.
Belief is so powerful it can have an impact on dog reality as well. For centuries, doctors have been aware of placebo effect. If someone takes a sugar pill that they believe is medicine, that pretend pill can have a real physiological effect.
Please note that it’s not “just” psychological. It’s not just that the patient expected to feel better so they convinced themselves that they felt better. Their body chemistry changes. In one remarkable study, a group of patients with osteoarthritis in their knee were operated on and given arthroscopic debridement. Another group was put under and their knees were opened up and then sewn shut. Nothing was done to their joints. The folks who received no treatment had EXACTLY THE SAME results and those who had their knees scoped. The fake operation had relieved their pain and given them back as much range of motion as the real operation had. People who take fake asthma medicine have measurably better lung capacity.
You can take the placebo effect out of medicine. Blessings and curses can heal and harm if the recipients believe in their power. Lucky charms and rituals are huge in sports. Micheal Jordan always wore his University of North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform and Bill Russell reportedly threw up before each game. Jordan has 6 NBA championship rings and Russell has 11.
So try it out. Endow an object or ritual with power. I am declaring that my father’s high school class ring, which magically appeared in my possession after he passed away, has supernatural powers. It makes me extra-confident and brings me extra luck and, if the Earth is invaded by evil aliens, will give me the power to fly and shoot energy beams out of my eyes.
Sounds crazy but, if I believe it hard enough…
Who knows?
(Or course we’ll have to wait for an alien invasion to test the ring’s power.)




  • There are two kinds of reality: Cultural reality and Dog Reality
  • Belief can have an impact on both
  • Placebos and lucky charms can be very powerful

Three Steps to
Take Today

  1. Choose a lucky charm or ritual
  2. Imbue it with power. Really believe that it works for you
  3. See how it affects you!


Scheduling Challenges

Scheduling Challenges

I missed two appointments this past weekend and last Friday I would have missed a doctor appointment if my doctor hadn’t taken the day off.

This is a problem that needs to be addressed.

There are basically two parts of keeping track of an appointment. The first is writing it down and the second is reading it.

Click Here to jump to the Actionable/Practical Stuff at the Bottom


If you have a good scheduling habit.

I don’t have one of those.


When I a young man I had an very good memory and very simple responsibilities so I didn’t develop a good scheduling habit. Basically I went to work and then went to the theater where I either had rehearsal, a meeting or beers with friends. When I grew older it became clear that I needed a way to keep track of my growing list of obligations and commitments.

I thought that the problem was finding a system that I could consistently use. I longed for the iPhone for decades before it was invented. Before that I tried notebooks and dayplanners and calenders and loose leaf systems and journals and even hired a personal assistant for a few months. Nothing worked. I thought it was because I didn’t have the right device.

The truth is that I did not develop a good scheduling habit.


Now I have the right device, a magical appliance that goes whereever I go. A phone and a computer and a sound system all in one that I always have with me. I have multiple scheduling options. At work I have Outlook and at home we use Google Calendar. Both update to the magical device in my pocket.

So what’s the problem now?

I have still not developed a good scheduling habit.


I want to acknowledge that I have made progress. I actually have a nascent scheduling habit. I am now aware that my life is more complicated and my memory is not what it was when I was 20 so I need to write everything down. It’s much better than it was BUT, obviously, there is room for improvement (see missed appointments above).

What’s missing is the habit of writing everything down and then always looking at both calendars.

Especially on weekends. Weekends and holidays are problematic because I don’t automatically open my computer and check my email and calendar. I have this strong belief that my weekends are full of free time even though every weekend for the past 45 years has been full to bursting. I’m apparently a slow learner.

As I said, there are two steps to scheduling:

  1. Writing it down at the time that the appointment or commitment is made
  2. Reading it and being aware of it when the appointment or commitment is scheduled.

So I going forward I need to make sure I put everything in my schedule and check that schedule every day.

Reading: The reading of my schedule I can do that at the end of my journaling which I plan to do every morning, even on weekends. I do my journaling in my computer which has access to everything. My schedule will also be available on my phone. It seems to me that I should figure out how to integrate my work schedule (on Outlook) and my personal/family calendar (on Google). I am not the only one using either system so I can’t delete either one but I’m sure there’s an effective way for them to talk to each other.

Writing: I need to always make sure I take the time to enter my appointments into my calendar. What stops me is:

  1. Embarrassment at taking time away from whomever I am talking to to write down the appointment.
  2. A mistaken belief that I will remember and/or enter it later.

I just have to change my behavior.

If anyone has suggestions, ideas or foolproof hacks that they use, please enter them in the comments below.



  • Scheduling is challenging for me because I haven’t cultivated a scheduling habit.
  • Step 1 of scheduling: Writing appointments and commitments down.
  • Step 2 of scheduling: Reading your schedule so you know what you have to do.
  • Weekends and holidays are challenging if you don’t look at your calendar on those days.

Three Steps to
Take Today

  1. Do you have a good scheduling habit?
  2. If not, consider what you need to do to create one today and take steps to put it in place.
  3. If you have a good system, share it with others readers (and with ME!!) in the comments below.

Checking my schedule(s) now….Back to school night? What the heck is that?


I started this blog to provide a forum for my ideas AND to document my own transformation and to create public accountability for changes I want to make in my life. Some posts will be full of philosophy and others will have practice tools. Others will be about my own struggles and successes and the steps I am taking to minimize the former and maximize the latter.
This is one of those.

What do Trips, Illness and Celebrations Have In Common?

What do Trips, Illness and Celebrations Have In Common?


Newly hatched habits are cute and cuddly—everyone loves them—but they’re basically defenseless and they must be carefully protected. Special days (like holidays) and special circumstances (like illnesses or vacations) can be deadly to young, defenseless habits.

Habits are triggered by cues. I have developed a bunch of habits that are cued by the regular events of my work day.

I get on the train in the morning and I meditate and then I write.


At 12:00 I get a notice on my computer to go to the gym. I get to the gym and I work out.


I’m a meditating, working out, writing, productive monster!!!

But what if I don’t go to work on the train? Do I do all those things anyway?

Of course…

I don’t.

Actually I sometimes do but not regularly. On vacation in Hawaii I kept up with my workouts and mediation but I didn’t write. In Maine I went for one run and that was it. No meditation. No writing.

I had a great time but it broke up the flow of getting things done and establishing patterns and it took an effort to get back on track. Some habits, like writing a gratitude list and a poem every evening, were all but killed by a break in routine.

Actually they did die. Who am I kidding. The trip to Maine put them in the hospital and then Labor Day pulled the plug.

But I’m going to bring them back to life. In this grotesquely extended metaphor that is making everyone uncomfortable including me, I am going to open up the skylight during a thunderstorm and shoot lightning into their cold, dead bodies until they rise from the slab as I laugh like a maniac,

Okay, back to practicality.

The key is to create structures that support positive action. Habits are structures. So are support groups, calendar reminders, accountability buddies, temptation bundles, motivational kitty posters and bets. The secret is to create structures that work even when you travel or have a day or two with a weird schedule.

I have a mild illness right now and I’m not going to work today. That means no train and no outlook calendar reminder. Depending on how I feel I may forgo the workout but I’m going to meditate and write and I’m going to figure out a way to support those habits even when I’m at home.

PLEASE let me know if you have systems or structures that work on normal days and unusual days.

Now it’s time to roll back the skylight and let in the lightning.


Gratitude List:

  • I’m grateful to have people like you who read my blog.
  • I’m grateful for the support and help I get from Shelley.
  • I’m grateful for my air conditioner.




An NFL team in LA
Moved to Saint Louis one day
Then they came back
But alas and alack
They still didn’t know how to play


Basics of Habit Forming 102
Apps, Games and Conspiracies

Basics of Habit Forming 102
Apps, Games and Conspiracies

DSC_0871Habits start off as actions that we decided to do. Then we do them again and again until they we don’t know why we do them.

Habits have a structure.

  • CUE: (I’m on the train to work and I finished meditating)
  • ACTION: (pull out the Macbook Air and start writing)
  • REWARD: (sense of accomplishment and the unnamed good feeling that I get from writing or expressing—lets be cute and call it “content creation contentment” or CCC)

Bad habits have the same structure.

  • CUE: (Leave morning meeting)
  • ACTION: (Go get cup of coffee and bag of animal crackers from kitchen. Drink and eat)
  • REWARD: (Sugar, carbs, caffeine)

Creating a new habit is not easy but there are some tricks. One technique has been studied by Professor Milkman* from Wharton. I heard about her work on the Freakonomics podcast (which I highly recommend but the ideas are not really new. She just studied them and confirmed that they work.)

Temptation Bundling

This is putting the good with the good. Long before I head about this from Professor Milkman, my wife applied it to great effect. She was binge watching Battlestar Gallactica but her rule (for herself) was that she could only watch the show while walking on the treadmill. For months she exercised nearly everyday for at least 45 minutes.

In the study (“Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling” Milkman, Minson and Volpp, Management Science Vol 60, Issue 2, Feb 2014) Milkman and her colleagues gave people audio books (including the Hunger Games) that they could only listen to when they were at the gym.

Other examples that Milkman suggested on Freakonomics is only going to your favorite burger joint with a difficult relative or only listening to your favorite band when you’re cleaning the house.

Commitment Devices

A commitment device is similar but is more like creating a situation where you must do the right thing because you have no choice or because the consequences of not doing what you want will be bad. The classic commitment device example is from The Odyssey. Ulysses wants to hear the song of the Sirens without crashing his ship so he has his first mate tie him to the mast. He’s stuck so he can’t do what he wants to do (steer the ship toward the rocks where the Sirens await).

Commitment devices that don’t involve beautiful singers who want to eat you include:

  • Cutting up credit cards
  • Not keeping foods or drinks you want to avoid in the house
  • Giving your gaming system away


Games and Bets

Making a game out of something you want to change and putting something at stake can combine elements of temptation bundling with commitment devices. I have had bets to lose weight and stop smoking. The Game On Diet has worked for several of my friends and I recommend it. It’s fun. Pact is an app where you can win or lose money based on whether you are doing what you said you’d do.

Rituals and Secret Societies

One way to create a habit is to make a it important. Make it magical and mystic and powerful.

Another way to start a new behavior or break a bad habit is to get support. Tell your friends what you want to do or join a group of people committed to the same thing.

I have this goofy dream of creating little secret groups that have handshakes and passwords and hermetic routines. These groups wouldn’t have world domination or espionage as their goal. They would be designed to help their members create new habits and reach their goals.

Imagine that you want to keep track of your spending so you can budget effectively and you have a hard time keeping track of what you spend on nights out. That night you’re out at a restaurant and you spot mysterious, cloaked figure watching you and your party from a corner.

Who could it be?

This is the Sacred Ghoul of Accountability!

This is really your friend Pat from the Tuesday poker game but tonight, by prearrangement at the last meeting of the Hermetic Society of Bacon and Eggs she’s wearing the cape of the Ghoul of Accountability and she’ll keep an eye on you until you give her the secret sign. The private signal that tells her and the other members of your secret cabal (that may or may not be watching in disguise) that you successfully photographed and filed the dinner receipt in your accounting program and you only ate one piece of bread.

And no butter.

Okay, maybe it’s an idea that’s ahead (or behind) it’s time.

Maybe it’s exactly what the world needs.

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*I love this woman’s name so much.

The Basics of Habit Forming

The Basics of Habit Forming


Over the past year or so I have formed some great habits and replaced some bad habits and I am applying my learnings to coaching other people. Here are some things I’ve learned that you might find useful.

According to research on habits cited by Charles Duhigg in his excellent book The Power of Habit, habits always consist of cues, action or behavior and a reward. If you have a habit you want to get control over, the most effective thing is to identify those three things.


Habits rely on cues. My cue for meditation is currently getting on the Metrolink train to work. This is also my cue for writing. My cue for working out is a daily appointment in my outlook calendar on my work computer.

These have been very effective but there is a problem. When I am on vacation or working from home I don’t get on the train so I often don’t meditate or write. I also don’t open Outlook if I’m not working so that workout cue doesn’t get triggered. I have other goal structures in place to get me to do those things but the main habit that works so well on workdays is not available.

Here’s a great example of the power of habit. I got on the train and started writing this. Typically I meditate for the first 20 minutes of the train ride. I started writing and instead and I’m feeling very antsy. I have to meditate.

You don’t have to stop reading for 20 minutes but I’m going to stop writing.

Please imagine a time lapse of me sitting on a train apparently doing nothing.

I’m back. Sorry for the pause.

(Did you notice? No? Did you imagine me on the train doing nothing? No? When you read something do you imagine a person writing? I don’t. It’s a strange relationship when you think about it, writer to reader. To me it feels more like a brain to brain communication than a face-to-face conversation does. It can be more intimate and, at the same time, less personal. That’s something to explore on another day.)

Back to habits.


The action or behavior is really what we think of as the habit. That’s what we want to start (or stop) doing.

One of the best ways to change a bad habit is to change the action while keeping the cue and the reward. There is a groove in your brain already to start doing something when you are in some place or situation or when something happens. If you notice that and choose a different action rather than try to ignore the cue you’ll tend to be more successful.

When the cue comes up do something else rather than ignoring the cue. Getting on the train to go to work used to be a cue for me to pull out my phone and play Words With Friends, Two Dots and Angry Birds. I replaced the action with meditation and writing. When I stopped drinking alcohol I replaced the action of buying wine with buying decaf coffee. If you don’t replace the action the cue will start an tickle in your brain and you’ll want to do something. It’s actually easier to do something else and satisfy the brain’s need to scratch that itch rather than to try to ignore it. The groove is carved, might as well use it.

By the way, the action may be “quietly fume resentfully” or “feel helpless and sorry for myself” or “get pissed off and yell.” Changing habits may help you change relationships.


Actions are usually very obvious. Cues are usually less obvious but once the habitual action is identified it’s not that hard to pick it out. (Hint: It’s the thing that happens before the habitual action. If nothing happens then it’s probably boredom or anxiety.)

The rewards are usually gross and squirmy and hidden under a rock. They may require a Flashlight Of Honesty (+3 wisdom modifier) and the Scalpel of Self-Examination (usually used with the Shield of Objectivity which can provide +4 protection against self-disgust if used correctly).* You might also enlist the help of a therapist, a coach, a good friend or a support group.

Obviously rewards include hits of sugar, dopomine, adreneline and personal satisfaction. There’s also approval, accolades and love. These may be easy to spot.

Less obvious are things that don’t seem like rewards but are extremely common and very motivating. Many of these fall into the category of BEING RIGHT. Being the ‘quietly righteous victim’ is a strangely common and attractive reward. Another gross reward is the thrill of getting something you’re not supposed to have. Many adults have secret vices only because they are getting back at dead parents for not letting them stay up to watch The Six Million Dollar Man when they were 8. Avoiding anxiety is a strange reward for procrastination since it often causes anxiety later but it seems like that’s the jackpot for goofing off.

The very worst are zombie rewards. These are rewards that have died long ago but their corpses are rattling around eating that grove in your brain even deeper. This is an extended—and I think entertaining—metaphor for actual neuroscience. Mice that have been rewarded over and over again for doing something that will hurt them (like hitting an electrified plate) keep hurting themselves even after the reward stops coming. This is obviously true of addicts and even normals (as we addicts call people who haven’t yet admitted that they are addicts).

So if you want to replace a habit it’s important to figure out what your reward is and how the new action will reward you.

Here’s a habit that I want to replace. In the morning I usually lie in bed half awake and half dozing for 15-30 minutes. I set an alarm and then hit the snooze. This is not a good habit. Interrupted dozing might feel nicer than getting up but it doesn’t do anything for you. If you’re not going to sleep you may as well get up and start a productive, relaxed day with a shower and breakfast and a little time with the family. Maybe even exercise or meditate. I produced an interview with Ariana Huffington who is now on a mission to get everyone to get enough sleep and she hates the snooze button.


I just have to say that if you have a bad habit that you can’t kick it’s possible that you have an addiction. I would advise you to get help. I did. It’s worth it.

Your Turn

Pick a habit to replace one you want to get rid of. If you can’t think of a good one here’s a list of good ones:

  • Meditate 10 minutes a day
  • Walk for 20 minutes
  • Drink water
  • Smile at a stranger

Let me know how it goes!

*I apologize for the Dungeon and Dragon references. I can’t help myself. They’re habitual.

Let’s make this a habit!

I’ll send out a weekly email directing you to new posts and new ideas. If you want to find out more about one-on-one and group coaching, send me an email at It may go with out saying but I promise I will never give anyone your email address.

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