Just Because: Treats

Cup of cafe latte and coffee beans
Cup of cafe latte and coffee beans

This post is excerpted from "Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits -- To Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life." Copyright © 2015 by Gretchen Rubin. To be published by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.
-- Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea

I'd started many habits over the past several months, and, Up­holder that I am, I embraced them, and I planned to follow them indefinitely. No finish lines. Nevertheless, while I was being more productive and more mindful, I sometimes felt burdened by these new activities. All this effort could be tiresome, even for some­one like me.

Which is where the delightful Strategy of Treats comes in. Unlike a reward, which must be earned or justified, a "treat" is a small plea­sure or indulgence that we give to ourselves just because we want it. We don't have to be "good" to get it, we don't earn it or justify it.

"Treats" may sound like a self-indulgent, frivolous strategy, but it's not. Because forming good habits can be draining, treats can play an important role. When we give ourselves treats, we feel energized, cared for, and contented, which boosts our self-command -- and self-command helps us maintain our healthy habits. Studies show that people who got a little treat, in the form of receiving a surprise gift or watching a funny video, gained in self-control, and I know that I find it easier to face Power Hour if I had coffee with a friend during the day. It's a Secret of Adulthood: If I give more to myself, I can ask more from myself. Self-regard isn't selfish.

By contrast, when we don't get any treats, we feel depleted, re­sentful, and angry, and justified in self-indulgence. We start to crave comfort -- and we'll grab that comfort wherever we can, even if it means breaking good habits.

To strengthen my good habits, I decided to create a menu of healthy treats -- but that can be more challenging than it sounds. So many popular treats come at a cost: the museum visit requires a long trip across town, the new shoes are expensive, the martini tonight will make the morning tougher. My favorite treat is reading, and reading requires time and concentration, which aren't always easy to muster. A reader of my blog noted, "I love to play the piano, but it takes focus, and some days I've already spent out my focus quota."

I began by collecting examples of other people's inventive treats: browsing through art books, cookbooks, or travel guides; taking photographs on a walk; napping; having a session of "fur therapy" (petting a dog or cat); wandering through a camping store; looking at family photo albums; keeping art postcards in the car visor for a quick diversion in stalled traffic; going to a comedy club; going to baseball games; listening to podcasts; coloring in a coloring book; visiting an amusement park; learning a new magic trick.

It's important to have some treat options that aren't very demand­ing. A friend told me, "Every day after I get my kids off to school, I go back to bed for twenty minutes. I may go to sleep, or else I just lie there. I'm still at work by 9:00 a.m., and that little indulgence makes me so happy." A friend living in London told me his treat: "My cal­endar is packed, but twice a day, for fifteen minutes, I sit and drink an espresso and read the International Herald Tribune, and I don't check email, I don't do work. I don't want any additional breaks, but I'm furious if I don't get those two." Another friend said, "I wonder if there's something a person could do with this sexually. Depending on their situation." He laughed. "I don't even want to say out loud what I'm thinking."

"No, don't spell it out!" I protested. "But it's true that treats that come through the body seem to have a special power."

Sometimes treats might not look like treats. Writer Jan Struther observed, "Constructive destruction is one of the most delightful em­ployments in the world." I find that true, and tasks like shredding mail, emptying out files, or even peeling hard-boiled eggs can feel like a treat. Funnily enough, clearing clutter is also a treat for me, when I'm in a certain mood. On my blog, people wrote about their own untreatlike treats: ironing, writing code, doing Latin translation.

As a treat for herself, for her birthday, one of Jamie's colleagues walked to work -- six miles. "Did she do it to prove to herself she could do it?" I asked. "Or as a treat?"

"Oh, she wanted to do it," Jamie assured me. "For fun."

Although I love hearing what other people consider treats, I re­mind myself to "Be Gretchen." Just because an activity is a treat for someone else doesn't mean it's a treat for me -- and vice versa. A friend said, "I love CrossFit, that's a treat for me." Maybe I could reframe my yoga class, or exercise generally, as my "treat," I thought. Then I realized -- nope. I do enjoy it, in a way, but it's not a treat. A friend told me that her favorite treat was to shop for gifts -- a task that for me is arduous enough to qualify for Power Hour. I wish my bank of fun included activities like sketching, playing tennis, cooking, doing puzzles, or playing a musical instrument, but they're not treats for me.

I made a list of my own treats. One of my favorites is a visit to the library. I love keeping a log of books I want to read, looking up the call numbers, and wandering through the stacks to pick them out. Returning library books is an odd little treat, too (perhaps that's my Finisher nature). I love copying out my favorite passages from books and adding them to my various collections of quotations. I view sleep as a big treat, which is why I don't resent the idea of going to bed earlier, the way some people do. For me, it feels like a luxurious in­dulgence.

Beautiful smells are a reliable treat and can be enjoyed in an in­stant, with no cost, no effort, and no planning. In a flash, I get plea­sure from the fresh smell of a grapefruit, or the comforting fragrance of clean towels, or the promising smell of a hardware store. I remind myself to notice such treats, to register the fact that I'm experiencing a scent that I love.

After all, we make something a treat by calling it a "treat." It's all too easy to overlook how much we enjoy something. When we notice our pleasure, and relish it, the experience becomes much more of a treat. Even something as humble as herbal tea or a box of freshly sharpened pencils can qualify as a treat. "Look," I tell myself as I light a scented candle, "I'm giving myself a treat." Sometimes we can even reframe a challenging habit as a treat, which makes it much easier to keep. A reader observed, "When I thought of exercise as something I 'should' do, it was hard to get into a routine. Eventually, I decided to count my daily walk or cross-country ski as a treat -- my time for myself in a day otherwise filled with responsibilities. Somehow, that made it much easier to make it a priority."

The treats of childhood retain a special power. As a child, I was rarely allowed to drink soda or to buy a book instead of checking it out from the library. What do I do now, with abandon? Drink diet soda and buy books (the book-buying treat is wholly separate from the library-visiting treat). So perhaps we parents need to think hard about what we identify as treats for our children.

A friend thought she should renounce her treat. "I really love cof­fee, but I know I should stop drinking it," she told me.

"Why?" I pressed. "Does it keep you up at night? Does it make your stomach hurt?"

"No, it doesn't affect me."

I couldn't resist launching into a defense of coffee. "You need some treats, and as treats go, coffee is great. Even if you buy very expensive coffee, it's not that expensive, in absolute terms. It boosts your energy and focus. If you don't add anything crazy, it doesn't have any sugar, carbs, fat, or calories, but it does have antioxidants, vitamins, min­erals, and even fiber, weird as that sounds. Caffeine is fine if you're drinking it in the human range. Plus, there's pleasant ritual connected with it -- you can go out for coffee with a friend."

"But I drink so much. I should at least cut back."

"But why?" I pressed. "Enjoy it! Samuel Johnson said, 'All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.' A habit isn't bad unless it causes some kind of problem."

I don't think I convinced her.