Gretchen Rubin's Blog

July 12, 2018

Interview: Lucy Maddox.


Dr. Lucy Maddox is a consultant clinical psychologist, lecturer, and writer.


She's just published an intriguing new book, Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are. She argues that our adult selves are rooted in our childhood selves, and explains how to get insights into our current personality, relationships, and daily life  by understanding this influence. The book uses cutting-edge research, everyday experience, and clinical examples to examine that central puzzle: who are we, and how did we become who we are.


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


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


Lucy: Ooh, there are a few. Not that I always manage to do all of them but they are all things that definitely help when I do. Regular writing makes me feel happier, regular mindfulness makes me feel calmer, regular exercise makes me feel more alive and regular sleep just makes me feel more human!


Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?


Lucy: The importance of the basics: sleep, eating well, and not cramming too much in. I find it hard to say no to shiny opportunities and always have done, but as I’ve got older I have started to embrace JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out) as well as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).


Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers -- most?


Lucy: One of the things that led me to write my book Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are, was that I was teaching on child development and was constantly surprised by how few of the really juicy experiments from this area we are taught about in school. Everyone has been a child and there’s lots in child psychology that can help us understand ourselves as grown ups, yet most people aren’t taught about the classic psychology experiments, unlike the way we are taught about classic physics studies like Newton’s apple or Archimedes’ bathtub. I wanted to explain child development and psychology in clearly accessible language for anyone interested in how they’ve become who they are, and also reassure people that although our childhoods are important not everything is set in stone.


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


Lucy: Making myself too busy is the main one.


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


Lucy: Probably the overall habit of balance, if I can call that a habit--trying to do enough fun things I like but also enough cosy things and having enough space where nothing is planned in.


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


Lucy: I’m a sucker for a list or a star chart. One thing which helps me to achieve something I want to is writing lists and ticking things off. I employed this when I was writing my book--I had a spreadsheet of the chapters and coloured a box in yellow each time I completed a draft or green when I finished the final copy. This is a bit like what happens in NaNoWriMo, or national novel writing month, when you have to write a certain amount of words each day and your online bar graph changes colour when you achieve it.


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


Lucy: I love the books and the podcast but with my psychologist hat on I struggle to accept the Tendencies without more of an evidence base on how reliable they are. I think you would say that this makes me a Questioner, and that’s what your quiz called me too.


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


Lucy: I find it harder to stick to exercise or eating well when I’m travelling a lot, especially for work, and also harder to guard time for writing.


Gretchen: 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.?


Lucy: For me, not so much. I see keeping healthy habits as a process rather than an event. There’s a classic theory on motivation by Prochaska and Diclemente who described the ‘stages of change’. They didn’t see these as a linear process, but as a cycle, that we can loop back around. This was a really new idea back in the late seventies and early eighties when they first wrote about it, even though it's now very much accepted.


They thought it all starts with pre-contemplation, where we aren't even thinking about making a change, then progresses through contemplation - where we become aware of something being problematic but don't do anything differently, to preparation for a change, then finally taking action, and then maybe hardest of all trying to maintain that change. It's really hard to stick to a change in behaviour so often we relapse back into our old way of being, but we might cycle through those initial stages much quicker the next time round.


I like the way they describe this as a cycle, which means we don’t have to beat ourselves up if we do fall off the wagon, but instead just climb back on. I also like the way they include a phase where we might not even be consciously aware of the need to change. Sometimes looking back at decisions I’ve made to change something I can think of a reason why, but it’s not always totally clear at the time.


Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?


Lucy: Actually something my Dad once said to me: “everything is fixable.” I sometimes think of that if I’m feeling a bit panicked about something. I find it really reassuring. I also really like the phrase “adventure is waiting”--it tends to make me feel more excited about new opportunities and less scared. Another thing I say to reassure myself if I catch myself worrying over something is to try to put things in perspective by asking myself if anyone is going to be hurt as a result of whatever it is. If not then it’s sometimes possible to shrink the worry down a bit. In a similar vein, on getting things in perspective, there’s something called the Overview Effect, which astronauts experience when they look back at the Earth all small and feel that day-to-day human problems are insignificant. There are some meditations which try to bring about a similar kind of feeling, by talking you through a guided visualisation which zooms out so you see how small we really are in the wider context of the universe.


Blueprint by Lucy Maddox


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Published on July 12, 2018 03:00 • 47 views

July 10, 2018

I love to read. And I love to read children's and young-adult novels. In fact, I'm in three (yes, three) book groups where we read only "kidlit."


And I love to re-read. I'm sure I've read some of my favorite books at least twenty times.


In case you're interested in reading some YA novels, here is a list of some of my favorites. I've read all of them at least twice, and some of them many more times than that.


Now, I must add, this is a very haphazard list of my favorites. There are so many books that I've read and re-read. I wanted this list to include some very well-known books, and also some that are less well-known, for people who are looking for something they may not have known about.


1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Buy from IndieBound; Barnes & Noble; Amazon


2. What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

Buy from IndieBoundBarnes & Noble; Amazon


3. Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Buy from WORDBarnes & Noble; Amazon


4.   Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp

Buy from WORD; Barnes & Noble; Amazon


5. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron

Buy from WORD; Barnes & Noble; Amazon


6. Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Buy from WORD; Barnes & Noble; Amazon.


7. The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

Buy from Barnes & Noble; Amazon


8. Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt

(Wow, I really dislike the new cover; ignore that.)


Buy from WORD; Barnes & Noble; Amazon


9. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Buy from WORD; Barnes & Noble; Amazon


What's the difference, you may ask, among a work of children's literature, a work of adult literature, and a work of young-adult literature? In my three children's literature reading groups, this question often comes up. And there's no clear answer.


And the sorting of books changes over time. Catcher in the Rye and Jane Eyre are now often shelved with young-adult literature, though they started out as novels for adults.


What books have you read over and over?


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Published on July 10, 2018 05:00 • 124 views

June 28, 2018

Interview: Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever.


Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering, has written several books and been a columnist for Fortune, the Washington Post and other noted publications.


Alex Salkever is an author and technology executive who formerly served as technology editor at BusinessWeek and as a visiting researcher at Duke University. He advises technology companies on product, strategy and marketing and is a regular columnist for Fortune.


The two paired up to write the book The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Can Change the Future.


Now they've teamed up again to write a new book: Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain--and How to Fight Back.


In it, they examine the question of how technology influences our thoughts and behaviors. They focus on the four key areas of Love, Work, Self, and Society and document problems caused by technology—and then suggest strategies to take back control of technology.


I was eager to hear from Alex and Vivek about happiness, habits, and productivity.


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


Alex: This may sound strange, but doing the dishes! It’s a structured activity and I have a specific way of doing it that gives me some comfort. Every dish type has its place. And I have a routine around washing dishes—the small spoons go in the same basket, the desert bowls fit into the upper rack on right. More conventionally, I love going walking or jogging in the redwood forest near my house. If I am close to an ocean, I try to go surfing to clear my head. It’s my passion. I sometimes get my best ideas out there. And I can honestly say I have never gotten out of the water less happy than when I got into the water. In general, it's a question I ask—do I feel happier and more fulfilled after I do something? If the answer is consistently “No” then I try to curtail that activity. If the answer is “Yes!” I try to do more of that activity.


Vivek: For me, going for a hike and getting off the grid is really crucial in keeping me healthy and productive. I also meditate daily to slow down my brain, which naturally runs at a really high speed. I make sure to spend some time every week disconnected and on a trail. And there is the question of happiness: spending as much time as possible with family is the best route for me.


Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?


Alex: Don’t beat up on yourself if you don’t succeed in building healthy habits. Establishing and maintaining healthy habits is very hard, really a lifelong process that never stops. But make sure the habits you prioritize the highest and work the hardest to fulfill are the ones that make you happiest. When I was living in Hawaii as a recent college graduate, I made it a priority to get in the water and go surfing at least five days per week. I was often busy building a writing career which eventually took me to BusinessWeek and into books. But come 4 p.m., I was in the water and to this day some of my happiest memories are with me. That lesson—prioritize what is the most important—is something I wish I had known when I was very young. I would have worried a lot less and probably had more fun.


Vivek: You should follow your heart. It is easy to follow your mind or your hunger, but that little voice inside guides you on practically everything if you listen to it. This comes into play the most in happiness, when you are having to make decisions about what is right and wrong. There are choices we have to make every day that need to be based on our values.


Alex Salkever and Vivek Wadhwa Your Happiness Was Hacked


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


Alex: Oh, definitely. Compulsively checking texts. In the book, I write about how I almost killed a group of cyclists while texting and driving on this dangerous coastal highway north of San Francisco. It was the stupidest thing. How could I risk so much just to read a text? But I’m not that different than tens of millions of people. (I’ve since set a new habit of putting my phone away when I get behind the wheel). I get distracted by shiny objects on the internet and have to work hard to stay focused. I struggle to not check email and read random news on the internet (usually on Hacker News). And I have to work hard to put down the smartphone and leave it alone, or in a drawer. I can honestly say my technology addiction is my worst bad habit—it pushes me towards doing the “urgent” or tackling the “noisy” task rather than working on what’s really important. I never met anyone who said they wish they had spent more time answering emails or looking at pictures on Facebook. And I personally find the less time I spend with technology, the more happy I am (to a certain point—I need technology to earn a living, of course).


Vivek: I’m like Alex. I had a heart attack a few years ago driven in part by my technology-induced stress levels (I write about that in the book). So I have to work hard to disconnect and not feel like I need to respond to things quickly. I’ve gotten much better at it, though, and have built some systems around it. Like I don’t even bother to check voice mails a lot of the time and I post to social media but I don’t read that much on social media; it’s not the best use of time. Technology really is an addiction, that you have to manage—and overcome!


Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you?


Alex: Spending time with my children. I try to do it every day, for at least a few hours. Usually playing sports or talking. Reading is next. I think that reading is the best habit for lifelong learning and it helps with other skills like concentration and meditation.


Vivek: Meditation and mindfulness.


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


Alex: A healthy habit I started a year ago that has stuck is running in the morning when I wake up. It was a hard one to get going. I like running but am not really a morning person. I also have a bad habit of staying up late to read and sometimes I get creative inspiration at night. I’m not a night owl but I’m not a lark, either. I did a few things. First, I started laying out my running clothes—socks, shorts, shoes, t-shirt—every evening before I went to bed. That removed a mental barrier which may seem insignificant but actually was a key obstacle. I am a time counter so if it took me five minutes to gather my clothes, in my mind I would subtract five minutes from my running time and sometimes that took me below the threshold of where it was worthwhile to run. Second, I would write down a mini activity diary for the next day and would list in the “Exercise” section the run I planned. This was both an affirmation and a commitment. Third, I switched my running routine to places where I love to run. There are a few trails near my house that go through forests of oak, laurel and redwoods and one stunning trail down to the Pacific Ocean past hills of wildflowers. It takes a few minutes extra to drive to those trailheads. I don’t have enough time to get to them by running and get to work. But running in those beautiful places makes it so much more pleasurable that it feels like a real reward. Lastly, after my run I would stop at my favorite coffee shop and buy an Americano, my favorite coffee drink. By putting these pieces together—planning and reward—it helped me turn a resolution into a pretty robust habit that’s stuck for a year.


Vivek: I try to switch off all technology by 9 p.m. and get to bed by 10 p.m. And then I wake as early as I can. It is easy to watch late shows and stay connected, but early to bed and early to rise is the best habit of all.


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


Vivek: According to the quiz, I am a Questioner. I won’t dispute this!


Alex: The quiz results describe me as a Questioner and parts of that definitely make sense. I crave perfect information and am a perfectionist in many realms. I also think I have parts of Rebel and Obliger in me. I really don’t like getting bossed around and told what to do. I definitely resist external expectations and relish the role of non-traditionalist. I have trouble working for people I don’t respect. But I am an Obliger too in that sometimes I struggle to advocate for myself and I may coddle my children and my employees too much. I respect and prioritize my duties to others over what might make me happier and saner. But at least with family, I think that’s the only way to live—family comes first.


Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or to stay happy?


Alex: I would say lack of sleep is the biggest problem. Everything else breaks down when I get less than six hours and less than seven is not great either. You can ask my wife. I am more likely to get angry, to get depressed, to say silly things. I am less patient. I have trouble eating healthy and sticking to exercise regimes. Sleep is the linchpin. I only realized this, ironically, after I left a heavy-duty job as a vice president at Mozilla, where I was expected to be always on. That meant never enough sleep. Once I left and took some time off, for the first time since college I made it a point to get enough sleep. It was like a light went on. I could actually feel the difference between six and seven hours, and see how negatively it affected my day.


Vivek: It is always sleep that is the problem!


Gretchen: 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?


Vivek: I’ll take this one. I was on a family vacation, a cruise in Mexico. I was a startup CEO and constantly checking in on work via email. On the cruise I couldn’t get any internet access and it was killing me! Literally, I found out. I started to get some chest pains. At first I ignored them. As I climbed the pyramid of Chichén Itzá, in the Mayan ruins on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, the pains became increasingly severe, and I began to feel nauseous. The views were stupendous. People dreamed for their whole lives of visiting this location and walking up these steps. Yet, amid the majesty of one of the greatest civilizations ever, my mind was on….when I can check my email? On the flight home, the chest pains and nausea turned into a shooting electric current in my left arm. My wife Tavinder insisted we go straight to the doctor. I said, no, I needed to go home and check email. Fortunately, my wife prevailed. We landed and drove straight to the hospital. I literally blacked out as we entered the emergency room, and sat propped up in a wheelchair while they registered me. My next memory was of waking up after lifesaving surgery for a massive heart attack. Had I waited another hour or two, my doctors said, I would have been dead. None of my emails would have mattered. That day woke me up and I decided to leave the world of startups and become an academic and teacher—to teach and assist others rather than try to make money as my primary goal. It was the best decision I have ever made.


Alex: My story pales next to Vivek’s. For me, it was reading a website that tallied up how many times you will see your parents before they die. The number was a lot less than I had imagined it would be—my parents live on the East Coast. And I started doing the math on how many times I would see all my dear friends. It was very sobering. I vowed from that day to prioritize relationships and spending time with people over anything else in my life. I bailed on corporate America (I may go back, but only on my terms) and created a life where I spend time every day with my children and my wife, and see my parents and friends more. I’ve been much happier since I made these changes.


Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?


Alex: “Put yourself in their shoes.” It helps me focus on empathy and stop thinking about myself.


Vivek: Always give more than you take.


Alex Salkever and Vivek Wadhwa Your Happiness Was Hacked


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Published on June 28, 2018 03:00 • 107 views

June 26, 2018

I'm not a cook myself, but I'm interested in the five senses, and I often choose library books very impulsively, so I recently picked up a little book by Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen.


In it, he writes a funny list about how to avoid making mistakes when buying cookbooks. Even though I myself don't have an issue with being tempted to buy cookbooks, I thought this was an amusing and helpful reminder of how we make mistakes in our purchases.


He suggests:



Never buy a cookbook because of its pictures. Nothing will look as good when you cook it.
Never buy cookbooks with tricky layouts.
Avoid cookbooks that are too general or too narrow. For instance, skip books like Great Dishes of the World or Waffle Wonderment.
Never buy a cookbook written by the chef of a restaurant where you've just eaten. Barnes notes, "Remember, that's why you went to the restaurant in the first place—to eat their cooking, not your own feebler version of it."
Never buy a cookbook focused on using a piece of equipment if you don't own that equipment.
Resist anthologies of regional recipes bought as a souvenir.
Resist books of famous historical recipes, especially in facsimile editions. (Gretchen: Always avoid facsimile editions! I've learned that the hard way.)
Never replace a beloved old favorite with the new, updated, edition; you'll always use your original.
Never buy a cookbook for a charity fundraiser. Give the cover price directly to the charity; they'll get more money, and you won't have to cull out the cookbook later.
Remember that many cookbook writers have only one good cookbook in them.

I'm working on my book Outer Order, Inner Calm, and one thing is clear—the best way to fight clutter is never to create it. If you're not going to make good use of a cookbook, it's easier to decide not to buy it than to figure out what to do with it once it's in your house!


Do you love to buy cookbooks? My husband sure does. And they take up a lot of room.


What further precautions would you add to this list?


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Published on June 26, 2018 05:00 • 119 views

June 21, 2018

Interview: Marc and Angel Chernoff.


Marc and Angel Chernoff are the creators of Marc & Angel Hack Life, which Forbes called "one of the most popular personal development blogs." Through their writing, coaching, and live events, they've spent the past decade sharing their ideas for how to get unstuck in order to find happiness and success.


They're also the authors of the new New York Times bestseller Getting Back to Happy: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Reality, and Turn Your Trials into Triumphs.


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


Gretchen: 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.?


Marc and Angel: Just over a decade ago, we struggled to cope through the most painful season of our lives thus far — this was our lightning bolt — a season that included losing two loved ones to suicide and illness, family-related betrayal, job loss, financial instability, and more. And it all happened quickly, too, back-to-back. The pain of this season knocked us down hard for a couple of years straight. At times, we felt like we had zero strength left to push onward. And that’s actually why we started writing on our blog in the first place. When we were at the lowest point in our lives, we used the blog as a public outlet and accountability journal. We wrote about our pain, our losses, the lessons we were learning, and the actions we knew we needed to hold ourselves accountable to, if we wanted to get through it all.


As we navigated our new reality one day at a time, one blog post at a time — facing the pain and investigating it, instead of distracting ourselves from it — we stumbled across morsels of strength and wisdom that we began to collect and build on. We gradually learned how to catch ourselves in negative states of emotional turmoil, so we could overcome the emotions that had once overcome us. We literally pushed ourselves as hard as we could to take one tiny action step after another — one honest conversation, one 5-minute workout, one 5-minute meditation, etc., and then we’d write about it. It wasn’t easy, but the tiny actions were manageable, and the daily ritual of writing about them helped keep us on track.


It was this painful season of our lives that ultimately changed the trajectory of our lives, gradually leading us into the personal development coaching and writing work we do today.


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


More than one comes to mind, but the simplest and most effective one that has worked wonders in our lives over the past decade is a 5-minute evening gratitude journaling exercise.


Every evening before you go to bed, write down three things that went well during the day and their causes.  Simply provide a short, causal explanation for each good thing.


That’s it. Too often people spend tens of thousands of dollars on expensive electronics, big homes, fancy cars and lavish vacations hoping for a boost of happiness. This is a free alternative, and it really works.


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


It took us quite a long while to figure out that discomfort can be a good thing — that discomfort can open great windows of opportunity. When we were younger we ran from discomfort constantly. We were in search of an easy life, and of course we never found it. We found the opposite.


Over the years we’ve learned that the best things in life are often the hardest to come by, at least initially. And when you shy away from difficulty and discomfort, you miss out on them entirely. For example, mastering a new skill is hard. Healing from grief is hard. Building a business is hard. Writing a book is hard. A marriage is hard. Parenting is hard. Staying healthy is hard. But all are amazing and worth every bit of effort you can muster.


If you get good at handling discomfort, you can do almost anything you put your mind to in the long run.


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


We’ve literally implemented dozens of healthy habits over the years — daily exercise, daily journaling, daily meditation, and more. Adding and stacking these habits happened one at a time. Here’s the general steps we took with each.


We picked one new habit at a time, and we started very small — just five minutes a day in most cases.


We initiated social accountability and motivation through Facebook and asked friends and family to check in with us on a daily basis to make sure we were on track.


We set up simple triggers for our habits — for example, a trigger might be walking into our home after work — and then we’d perform the new habit consciously every time the trigger happened.


We tracked the tiny bits of progress we made each day by putting a checkmark on a wall calendar every single time we completed a daily habit. The goal was to never break the chain of daily checkmarks on the calendar.


Once we felt comfortable with five minutes a day (perhaps after 30-60 days of doing the habit), we’d increase it to seven minutes a day, then ten minutes, and so forth.


That’s really all there is to it — at least that’s the simplified baseline of how habit change has worked in our lives.


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


Marc and Angel: This is one of our favorite (self-created) morning reminders. We literally read this out loud at our breakfast table every morning. Doing so helps us keep things in perspective:


Look around,

And be thankful right now.

For your health,

Your family,

Your friends,

And your home.

Nothing lasts forever.


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


Marc and Angel: Attaching ourselves to our ideals. This is a negative habit that still brings significant stress and anxiety into our lives sometimes. We’ve gotten better at managing this over the years, of course, but it’s an ongoing practice.


Truth be told, most of the things we as human beings desperately try to hold on to, as if they’re real, solid, everlasting fixtures in our lives, aren’t really there. Or if they are there in some form, they’re changing, fluid, impermanent, or simply imagined in our minds. Life gets a lot easier to deal with when we understand this.


Imagine you’re blindfolded and treading water in the center of a large swimming pool, and you’re struggling desperately to grab the edge of the pool that you think is nearby, but in reality it’s not — it’s far away. Trying to grab that imaginary edge is stressing you out, and tiring you out, as you splash around aimlessly trying to holding on to something that isn’t there.


That’s “attaching.”


Now imagine you pause, take a deep breath, and realize that there’s nothing nearby to hold on to. Just water around you. You can continue to struggle with grabbing at something that doesn’t exist, or you can accept that there’s only water around you, and relax, and float.


That’s letting go.


On a daily basis, when we feel our inner stress and anxiety levels rising, we challenge ourselves to consciously ask:


What are you desperately trying to hold on to right now? How is it affecting you?


Then we imagine the things we’re trying to hold on to don’t really exist.


We envision ourselves letting go … and just floating.


But again, this is a practice we have to work at persistently.


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


Marc and Angel: We both took the quiz, and we’re both Upholders. Interestingly enough, though, both of us are convinced that we were once Obligers. The life experiences and “practicing” we sustained over the past ten years undoubtedly shifted us from the inside out. At least that’s how we see it.


[Gretchen: For what it's worth, I think Marc and Angel are both Obligers who have created external accountability (such as their blog) that's so pervasive in their lives that they feel as though they're Upholders.]


Getting Back to Happy by Marc and Angel Chernoff


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Published on June 21, 2018 03:00 • 132 views

June 14, 2018

Interview: Grace Bonney.


I've followed Grace Bonney's career for a long time. She's the founder and editor-in-chief of the influential and ground-breaking site Design*Sponge.


But that's not all -- she's done so many different things: written for many design magazines, written a design column, hosted a radio show, and written bestselling books In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs and Design*Sponge at Home.


Now she's published the first issue of the new magazine Good Company.


I couldn’t wait to talk to Grace about happiness, habits, and productivity.


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


Grace: Volunteering. Hands down, this is the most powerful and important part of my daily life. It positively impacts not just my well-being but the community’s as well. The more time I’m able to spend away from the internet (and actively working to support people in our community), the happier I am.


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


Grace: That it’s not a final destination. I used to think that if I just worked hard enough and found the magic key, I’d unlock the door to always being happy--and never being stressed out. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to understand that moments of joy, and being fully present in them, is a more fulfilling goal.


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


Grace: Oh yes. I have a tendency to be all or nothing--and it freezes me in place immediately. I’ve missed out on a lot of fun work opportunities and life moments because something didn’t feel 100% perfect. I’ve expected too much from life and myself. No one and no thing is perfect--I’m getting better at understanding that the ups and downs are part of happiness and not a sign that something isn’t worth trying.


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


Grace: As a blogger, it’s been all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking my needs, my voice or my company are the most important priorities in my life. But they’re not. So every habit or activity in my life that has nothing to do with my needs (from taking care of our pets to volunteering to cook for others in our community) has reinforced over and over how important it is to connect to and support others. The more I’m able to de-center myself in my work and my life, the happier I am. It feels good to be a part of a chorus of voices and needs, rather than holding up the stage with my own.


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


Grace: I have! I’ve finally committed to a physical health program that I’ve consistently attended for over two years. It took me 35 years to find a space where health and strength were prioritized over weight loss, so that has made all the difference. Like a lot of people, I spent a large portion of my life with an eating disorder and seeing physical activity only as a means to one end: weight loss. But when I turned 34 I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and I needed to change everything: my activity level, the way I eat and how I take care of the inside of my body--not just the outside. I found an amazing local program in the Hudson Valley, called 30 Minutes of Everything, where a strong community of (mainly) women support each other in seeking strength and community--not just a “beach body”.


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


Grace: I would have guessed that I’m a Questioner, but the quiz actually pointed me to Rebel. I think I’m someone who has a hard time with authority in general, unless it’s someone I deeply respect who has a long history of work/behavior that I trust. In my industry we’re constantly handed new “experts” to trust and follow without question and I have a hard time with that. I guess that’s why I run my own business--fewer bosses and people telling me what to do makes me feel happier and more open, creatively.


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


Grace: Lack of sleep. 100%. On days when I sleep well, I feel like a completely different human being. The hardest part of being a business owner, for me, is finding a way to put aside the stress, responsibility and needs of the business (or people who work with me) when I go to bed. I find myself waking up at all hours worrying about ways to solve a problem or improve something that’s not where it needs to be.


Gretchen: 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.?


Grace: Absolutely. When I was 30 years old, I felt my internal chemistry shift and I hit a huge breaking point. It was a difficult year in which I confronted my work life, personal life and everything else in between. I ended up coming out, getting divorced, moving out on my own and shifting my work to be less about design and more about the people behind the work and their stories. It took a few years to regain my footing after that and then when I turned 34 and was diagnosed with Type 1, it was yet another big life-changing reminder to enjoy and be present in my life and work, because good health can be fleeting.


Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?


Grace: “Whatever works, until it doesn’t.” I read this in an interview with the actress Michelle Williams years ago and it’s rung truer to me than anything else. Life is a constantly evolving and ongoing process--what works for us and feels good to us during one time may not work or feel good down the road. And society can put a lot of pressure on people to come up with a “one and done” solution--and if that needs to change, we’re often made to feel like that was a failure. But as soon as I let myself understand that life and people are constantly changing and evolving, it allowed me to be happier in the now and more fully embrace things as they are and more freely let go and evolve when things need to.


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Published on June 14, 2018 03:00 • 105 views

June 12, 2018

Here in the United States, Father’s Day is coming up on Sunday, June 17.


I’m a big fan for using dates as milestones, as prompts for self-reflection or for action. People say Father’s and Mother’s Days are Hallmark-driven, consumerist holidays—but I think it’s nice to be reminded to think about my father, and to remember everything he’s done for me.


Ditto with Valentine’s Day, January 1, spring cleaning. I find it very useful to be prompted to take a moment to celebrate the people I love, and to take stock of how my life could be made better.


As I was thinking about my father, I reflected on all the good advice he’s given me over the years—both for helping me to be happier at home and at work, and helping me to develop good habits, especially the habit of exercise (which doesn’t come naturally to me at all).


Some highlights:



"If you’re willing to take the blame when you deserve it, people will give you the responsibility." This advice from my father is the best advice for the workplace I’ve ever received. I think about this all the time.
"As a parent, at some point, you have to switch from being an advisor to cheerleader." (If you want to hear me talk about this advice, you can listen to this short episode of "A Little Happier.")
"Alas, there are no wizards." My father reminded me that it can be tempting to believe that if I could just find the right helper, the right adviser, the right person to do a job, all my problems would magically be solved, and I wouldn’t have to be worried or involved with a project any more. But while there are smart and capable people, if something’s important to me, I have to stay involved. I can’t just delegate to some wizard.
"Energy." My father always stresses the value of energy. In large part because of this, the first chapter of my book The Happiness Project is devoted to energy. (Here are nine tips for giving yourself an energy boost in the next ten minutes.)
"Enjoy the process." My father always emphasizes that if we can enjoy the process, we’re less concerned about outcomes, and we’re less devastated if our efforts end in failure or frustration. That's a big help in the world. It also makes for a much happier, more mindful life.
"All you have to do is put on your running shoes and let the front door shut behind you." Back in high school, when I was first trying to get myself in the habit of daily exercise, he gave me this advice. It’s an excellent mantra for all couch potatoes trying to pick up an exercise habit. Just put on your shoes and step outside! It’s one of my Secrets of Adulthood: It’s enough to begin.
"Go to the library." When I was growing up, my father—and my mother, too—often suggested making a visit to the library. This family habit meant that I always had plenty of books to read, of whatever kinds of books I wanted at the time. Many of my happiest and most vivid childhood memories involve the Kansas City Plaza library. But more than giving me good advice to visit the library, my father also set a good example by reading books all the time, himself. Example is more persuasive than precept.

Speaking of books, if a father in your life might enjoy a book for Father’s Day, might I suggest my short, unconventional biography, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill? Judging from the emails I receive in the weeks following Father’s Day each year, I’ve concluded that many people give it as a Father’s Day gift.


Or if a father in your life is working on an important habit, consider my book Better Than Before, which explains the 21 strategies we can use to make or break our habits. It turns out that it’s not that hard to break a habit, when you do it in the way that’s right for you.


Fun fact: in book publishing, Father’s Day is a major event, because so many people give books as Father’s Day gifts.


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Published on June 12, 2018 02:00 • 121 views

June 7, 2018

Interview: Pam Lobley.


Pam Lobley has been a columnist and writer for many publications, including the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Huffington Post, BlogHer, and others.


She's also the author of the book Why Can't We Just Play?: What I Did When I Realized My Kids Were Way Too Busy.


Pam Lobley's work reminds me of my one-minute video about "The days are long, but the years are short." You can watch it here.  It also reminds me of my resolution in my book Happier at Home, to "guard my children's free time."


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


Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?


Pam: When I was 18, I figured happiness would be found in grand adventures, success, and accomplishments. But I have found that my deepest happiness has come not from the extraordinary days, but from the ordinary ones. Big accomplishments and milestones do bring happiness, but they can also bring stress, change and pressure. A new job or a book publishing deal are wonderful, but they also can mean taking on new and difficult tasks and pressures. A fancy vacation is delightful, but the expense, scheduling and unexpected disappointments can diminish the joyful feeling - like the time we took the kids to Disney and they weren’t that interested in the rides. They just kept asking when could we go back to the hotel and swim in the pool!


Running into a good friend while I’m walking the dog or driving to the orthodontist with my son and talking about his day ... these regular moments bring me so much happiness, notably because they are built in to my life and occur naturally. Realizing that they make me happy leads me to another realization - my life is a happy one! This kind of appreciation of the present moment would not have been possible for me to understand at age 18.


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


Pam: I hate to admit this, but I am not that organized. I think I am, and I always have a to-do list, but in reality everything takes longer than I think it will, I let stuff slide left and right, and then I end up late and rushing. Rushing kills my joy every time. That feeling of being behind and trying to finish a few things before time runs out is so distracting and defeating. The rushing itself makes me unhappy, then it compounds itself because I tend to make bad decisions or feel irritation when I am rushed - and that leads to further unhappiness.


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


Pam: I need 7+ hours of sleep a night, I exercise several times a week, I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, and I get outside for some time every day. Without these things I am super cranky and definitely not creative.


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


Pam: Questioner! Questioning the conventional wisdom of raising children today is what led me to write my book Why Can't We Just Play? What I Did When I Realized My Kids Were Way Too Busy. I asked myself, "Why is our family life so overscheduled, and when did parenting get to overwrought and frantic?" I answered it by removing all our activities for an entire summer, and letting my sons, ages 8 and 10 at that time, "just" play. Because we had NO scheduled activities, no camps, no classes - nothing but play and free time - I wryly referred to that summer as "a summer from the 1950s" and read and researched that era as the weeks went by. Adopting the 1950s mindset offered sharp perspective of current family values. Was that decade a better time to raise children? Well, it certainly was a simpler time. People did not check emails at midnight or enroll their 12 year olds in travel baseball leagues with 4 games a week.


We think of the 1950s as a time when conformity reigned supreme, but there is plenty of conformity in this era as well. The pressure to control and improve your children, and to micromanage their days is true for the vast majority of middle class families. Once I got off that merry-go-round, I saw my kids more clearly. They needed tremendous amounts of down time, and they were growing up in a world which provided almost none. In addition, I became aware that the more we rushed around, the faster I felt they grew up, and the less time I had to enjoy simply being with them. Being a Questioner is the reason I had the idea, and then the stamina, to carry out that experiment.


Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to "Be Gretchen.") Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?


Pam: I love that line from the James Taylor song, "The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time..." I’m somewhat obsessed with the passage of time. I am constantly aware of how precious our time on earth is, how quickly kids grow up, how life can change in an instant, of how memories we create are kept alive. Resisting the urge to do more, building free time our family’s schedule is something I strive for daily, though not always successfully. Savoring days when the kids are growing up is especially important to me, but every stage of life has its treasures and opportunities, and I don’t want to blur past them. A phone call with my sister, planning a party with my husband, shopping with my teen for his prom tux ... rather than pressing through those tasks, I remind myself to take my time. Let those moments be ones of happiness. Let things take longer. Let’s take the pressure off, and enjoy the passage of time.


Why Can't We Just Play? by Pa m Lobley


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Published on June 07, 2018 03:00 • 122 views

May 31, 2018

Interview: Laura Vanderkam.


Laura Vanderkam and I have been friends for many years. We first got to know each other through our related subjects -- I love her work on understanding how we use time, and how to get more happiness from our time. As she always says, "Spend more time on things that matter, and less on the things that don't."


Reading her work always reminds me of one of my most important Secrets of Adulthood: I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me.


I'm a huge fan of her books 168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think; What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast; and I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.


Because she's so good at making the most of her time, she also has a terrific podcast, Best of Both Worlds, with co-host Sarah Hart-Unger. It's all about managing work life, family life, and personal life (Laura has four children, so she has thought a lot about this).


Once I came up with my Four Tendencies framework, I realized that Laura is a fellow Upholder. She's a textbook Upholder. In fact, if you read my book The Four Tendencies, one of my funniest Upholder stories came from her (see below).


Now she's written a new book: Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. It's full of insights, practical tips, current research, and funny stories about how to make the most of our days.


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


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


Laura: There’s a great phrase from Ovid that "dripping water hollows the stone." Small things, done consistently, add up to big things in the long run.


I write about this mindset a lot in my books, and I try to adopt it in my own life as well. One example: In January of this year, I decided to start writing 500 words of fiction every work day. That’s really not much. Most of us have written that many words in emails by 10 a.m.! And so I don’t feel any resistance to cranking those words out. Sometimes I’m writing a real scene, sometimes I’m just sketching ideas that might become something. I can often get those 500 words done in 15-20 minutes. But all these little spurts add up. As of May, I’ve got about 50,000 words of material to work with, and I’ve figured out aspects of a novel I’m writing that never would have come to me if I hadn’t committed to doing the work.


Despite making my living as a writer, I’m continually amazed how many other professional obligations can get in the way of writing! Doing my 500 words a day helps me feel more creative. I’m not just sending emails about contracts. I’m still practicing my craft too!


Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers -- most?


Laura: I write most often about time management and productivity, so I’ve had thousands of people track their time for me over the years. I love seeing where the time really goes. Indeed, I’ve tracked my own time for 3 years straight! No one else has to do that, but it has been enlightening for me.


One of my most surprising findings has been that most people — including very successful people — get enough sleep. There’s this story out there that in our busy, busy world, people are increasingly sleep-deprived. There’s also a story that for women, in particular, attempting to build a career while raising a family will turn you into a sleep-starved mess. None of this is true. I once did a time diary project that looked at 1001 days in the lives of women with big jobs and kids at home. I found that these busy women averaged 54 hours of sleep per week, or about 7.7 hours per day. Sure, there were some bad nights. But there were plenty of good nights too!


There are 168 hours in a week, so it turns out it is quite possible to work full-time, spend plenty of time with loved ones, and get enough sleep as well.


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


Laura: I am definitely an Upholder. Who else would set a goal — in January — to write 500 words a day? I’m pretty sure the Upholder tribe includes anyone who writes about productivity and habits. Any meeting of such writers scheduled at 10:00 a.m. may as well start at 9:50 a.m. My podcast co-host for Best of Both Worlds, Sarah Hart-Unger, is also an Upholder. We schedule a recording at 1 p.m. and we are inevitably both on by 12:55 p.m.


I am the sort of person who, while in the throes of labor with my fourth child, told my husband not to speed on the way to the hospital, and insisted he park in the correct lot. Fortunately, we made it (barely). [Gretchen: this is a story that I love, and I included it in The Four Tendencies.]


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


Laura: I travel a lot for speaking engagements, so I’ve decided to view travel more as a challenging logistical puzzle I need to solve, rather than an excuse to drop my habits. I run every day (at least a mile — sometimes only a mile! — but at least a mile), so when I’m traveling it’s really just a matter of looking at the schedule and figuring out where that mile goes. Sometimes that means waking up at 4:30 a.m. and running in a hotel gym. I don’t enjoy waking up at 4:30 a.m. and running in a hotel gym, but that’s when the Upholder tendencies kick in.


I will admit, though, that I wish my Upholder tendencies kicked in a bit more with healthy eating. I love food. It’s not so much parties that are the problem, but if someone decides to offer me a chocolate chip cookie...the whole thing is getting eaten. I stopped shopping at Trader Joe’s because the dark chocolate covered caramels were becoming a bigger part of my life than I wished them to be.


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


Laura: In Off the Clock, I talk about the importance of this mantra: Plan it in, do it anyway.


As we think about time, it’s important to remember that the "self" is really three selves: the anticipating self (who looks forward to things on the calendar), the experiencing self (who is here in the present), and the remembering self (who thinks back on the past). Philosopher Robert Grudin once wrote that we "pamper the present like a spoiled child," and I think there’s something to this. The anticipating self thought it would be fun to go to the art museum on Friday night, when there’s live music and a bar, and the remembering self will look back fondly on the experience, but the experiencing self just got home from work. She is the one who has to brave the rain and the Friday night traffic. So she throws a tantrum, and we wind up indulging her whim to spend hours scrolling through Facebook posts from people we didn’t like in high school anyway.


The way to combat her tyrannies? Plan it in, do it anyway. The experiencing self is trying to deliver a monologue in what should be a three-actor play. In most cases, if your anticipating self wanted to do it, you’ll be happy you went, and probably the experiencing self will enjoy it too once she gets over the initial resistance. We draw energy from meaningful things. So I repeat this mantra to myself a lot!


Off The Clock by Laura Vanderkam


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Published on May 31, 2018 03:00 • 159 views

May 22, 2018

One common happiness stumbling block is the need to make a tough decision. To decide between apples and oranges, to weigh pros and cons, to think about what we will need and want in the future, to understand our real values...it’s tough.


People often write me emails to explain their situations and ask for my thoughts. I can’t give advice to a particular person, but here are some mantras and questions I use when I’m facing a difficult decision in my own life.


When I’m trying to make a tough choice, I say to myself, "Choose the bigger life." In a particular situation, people would make different decisions about what the "bigger life" would be, but when I ask myself that question, it always helps me see the right answer, for myself.


For instance, as a family, we were trying to decide whether to get a dog. My daughters desperately wanted a dog, but I kept thinking about the commitment, inconvenience, errands, and all the downsides. The pros and cons list felt equally balanced. But when I thought, "Choose the bigger life," I realized that the bigger life for my family was to get a dog. That wouldn’t be true for everyone, certainly. But it was true for us. And we’re so happy we have our dog Barnaby!


If you’d like to listen to a discussion of this, I talk about it in episode 27 of the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast.


Another question to consider: Is this decision likely to strengthen my relationships with other people? Strong relationships with other people are a key—maybe the key—to happiness, so decisions that help build or strengthen ties are likely to boost happiness.


Of course, sometimes we make decisions, such as to move to a new city or switch to a new profession, that put us in a place where we have few relationships. That can be worthwhile, absolutely, but it’s worth considering the time, effort, and energy needed to create new relationships.


I also ask myself, "Does this decision help me to follow my personal commandment to Be Gretchen?" (Of course, everyone should substitute their own names!) I want to shape my life to reflect my temperament, interests, and values. I ask myself: Am I making this decision to "Be Gretchen," or because I want to impress other people, please someone else, pretend that I’m different from the person I actually am, or deny a truth about myself?


Another way to think about "Being Gretchen" is to remind myself, "I want to accept myself, and expect more from myself." Is a particular course of action allowing me to expect more from myself—meaning it’s scary in a positive way, that will allow me to grow? Or does this course of action mean I’m not accepting myself—meaning it feels wrong for me in a way that I should respect?


It can also be helpful to consider whether, when I contemplate a particular course of action, do I feel energized or drained? Sometimes it’s great to push ourselves to do something novel, challenging, or scary. But sometimes, a bad feeling is an indication that a decision doesn’t sit right with us. Unfortunately, it’s often very hard to tell the difference between those two feelings. This takes a lot of deliberation.


I try to avoid false choices. Often, we try to make difficult decisions seem easier by boiling down our choices to two clear paths, when in fact, there may be many paths from which to choose. If you’re thinking of giving yourself a choice between two options—"Should I stay in my current job full time, or should I quit to write the novel I’ve always to write?"—ask, are those the only two options? Are there other options that I haven’t considered?


Relatedly, when appropriate, I reassure myself, "There’s no wrong choice here." When I’m facing two good options, I remind myself that a choice becomes the right choice as we live it—as we have good experiences, make new relationships, go down a particular path.


And here’s one last strategy.


As I mentioned, I often get emails from people saying, "Here’s my situation, here are my choices, what should I do, how do I choose?" And it’s quite clear to me, from reading what they’ve written, that they know what choice they want to make. So I write back, "I can’t give advice, but it sounds to me as though you already know what you want to do."


The way they explain the situation and the decision absolutely tips their hand. And that’s fine.


So if you’re not sure what you want to do, try drafting an email to explain the situation, send the email to yourself, wait a week, then read it. Maybe you know what you want, more than you’ve admitted to yourself.


Several fascinating books explore the question of making better decisions.



Chip and Dan Heath’s Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work . The title and subtitle say it all—why it’s hard to make decisions, how to test your assumptions, how to figure out what’s most important to you, how to make a better decision.
Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. This book includes many interesting ideas, but one stands out: one very effective way to judge whether a particular course of action will make you happy in the future is to ask people who are following that course of action right now if they’re happy, and assume that you’ll feel the same way. Going on a family trip to Disneyworld. Living near your family. Getting a hamster. Learning to use Instagram. Working as a paralegal. Volunteering. Moving to a place that lengthens your commute. In evaluating the likely consequences of a decision, other people’s experiences of happiness—or lack thereof—can be very instructive for me.
Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Schwartz explains why we find decision-making so taxing, and why having more choices can actually make us more stressed and less satisfied with our decisions.

What do you do when you need to make a tough choice?


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Published on May 22, 2018 09:33 • 149 views