I have a habit of doing the New York Times crossword puzzle most days of the week. Even if there were no benefits beyond the activity itself, I would still indulge in it. Let’s face it, I’m a word nerd.
But lately I’ve been noticing how this pleasant activity teaches a set of attitudes that is actually useful for successful habit change. Here are seven ways a crossword puzzle can provide the attitude adjustment that will help you change a habit:
1. First do no harm. We acquire our hurtful habits because they regulate our moods. Automatic eating, smoking, procrastinating—these mindless activities put us in a trance state that dulls the sharp pain of a harsh reality. Crosswords likewise put us in a trance state—I call it “Letterland”—but one that is more like “flow”—a state of being so immersed in what you are doing that the rest of the world falls away. Flow activities, like knitting, sketching, writing, running, or gardening, give your mind a break from boredom, pain, or worry while either doing you no harm or actively doing you good. Compared to a bad habit, these activities cost you little and benefit you a lot.
2. Take a break—the answer will come. Recent research suggests that taking a break can restore your willpower. When it comes to crosswords, taking a short break can restore your brainpower, enabling you to see a mistake or find an answer. It’s amazing how solvable a crossword problem can be once you’ve stepped away from it and returned. For a small, daily “aha” experience, do a crossword.
3. You get better with directed practice. With practice, you pick up a bit of crosswordese—those dumb words that you only see in puzzles. After a while, certain words become old, quirky friends. You recognize the animals that populate many puzzles—the eels, emus, and ants, for three—or the vowel-laden actors that take their bows again and again—Alda, Uma, and Asner.
4. “Seeing the light”—i.e., correcting your mistakes—can be the most rewarding part of doing the puzzle. Making errors in the crossword grid can be frustrating and annoying. But the more you do puzzles, the more fun it is to track down your errors and correct them. Satisfying! Likewise, when you relapse as you try to change a habit, you can gradually adopt the attitude of, “OK, what can I learn from this?” You correct, you change, you move on. Psychologists would say you are developing a “growth mindset,” the belief that your IQ and skills are not fixed at birth but can be cultivated throughout life.
5. You know more than you think you know. It’s awesome when an answer pops up from somewhere deep in your unconscious. “I didn’t even know I knew that!” you think. Sometimes even one letter can poke a neuron embedded deep within your brain and you magically get it.
6. Small steps get a big job done. At first, a hard puzzle may seem impossible. But word by word, step by step, you fill in the grid and complete the puzzle. Learning to chip away at a crossword is like using small steps to chip away at a bad habit. Little by little, you cut down on cigarettes, increase your walking program, or eat healthier.
7. Sometimes you need help. The NYT Saturday puzzle is usually too challenging for me. My partner and I have created a ritual of passing it back and forth until it’s done. OK, sometimes we cheat and use Google, The Great and Powerful, for an answer. At other times we “go to Rex,” solver extraordinaire Rex Parker. Like a hard puzzle, a habit, too, can often be best changed in tandem or with the help of an outside expert.
Of course doing crosswords, like any human activity, can spiral out of control. I once knew someone who avoided work by doing puzzle after puzzle after puzzle. For her, crosswords were like those potato chips--"You can't eat just one." But most of us can stop after one crossword. So, if you are searching for an enjoyable way to keep your mind flexible and open, try a crossword! You may find yourself learning life lessons that can help you change a habit.
So, what's a 10-letter word for "attitude adjustment?" I would answer: "Crosswords."
(c) Meg Selig
Dweck, C. Mindset (Ballantine, 2006).