Small habits with huge impact: Barry Schwartz

At Humu, our mission is to make work better, and we regularly get the chance to talk to inspiring minds in academia, business, and government. When we do, we ask questions that we hope will help everyone—everywhere—benefit and grow from the advice, routines, and practices these leaders share.

Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with psychologist Barry Schwartz. Barry was a professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College for over forty years and is the author of several books including The Paradox of Choice and Why We Work. He has spent decades researching the link between psychology and economics—and delving into how we can make work better.

Humu: What’s one way your work has changed the way you live?

Barry Schwartz: My research taught me to pay much more attention to the people around me. I used to assume everyone was as willing to get into any discussion as I was. Now I try to listen more and talk less.

H: What is one thing you have to do every day?

BS: I’m at the gym every morning. I feel better when I exercise—and I can eat more.

H: How do you recharge?

BS: I nap, I watch sports, and I go for walks around Lake Merritt (in Oakland) with my wife.

H: What’s your best time­-saving shortcut?

BS: My best trivial time-saving shortcut is that I memorize the geography of stores so that I can more easily organize shopping lists. To make sure I don’t forget anything, I mentally go from aisle to aisle.

On a more serious note, I’ve learned to stop writing for the day when I know what to write next. The hardest part of writing is often simply getting started. If you already know what the next two paragraphs should say, you can just sit down [the next day] and type them up—and then you’re back into the flow.

H: What do you value most in the people you work with?

BS: Commitment and honesty.

H: What book do you recommend to everyone?

BS: After Virtue, by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, has had the biggest impact on my thinking.

H: What’s the best advice you’ve received?

BS: The best advice I received, I received too late. It’s that children teach parents how to be parents. My wife and I had this ridiculous attitude that we could mold our kids into the people we thought they should be—that’s a fantasy.

The more general lesson is you need to be open to having other people teach you. George Valliant, a psychiatrist who spent decades studying successful aging, found that the most predictive question was, “What have you learned from your children?” It was astonishing how many people just drew a blank, because it never occurred to them that learning goes both ways. Those are the ones who had a hard time aging.

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