How Habits Make Us Free, Energized and Happy
‘Better Than Before’ author Gretchen Rubin is a fan of healthy routines
For someone who’s just written a bestseller on habits (Better Than Before), Gretchen Rubin spends a lot of time talking people out of them. That’s because she firmly believes making a habit shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. Habits should solve life problems that get in the way of your happiness.
“Little habits are adding up to something bigger,” Rubin says. “I’m a huge advocate for habits, but I often ask people if they should make one. A lot of people say they want to make the bed every day, or give up coffee, or stop chewing gum. I ask, ‘Do you really care? Do you really want to?’ If it’s not a problem, why would you change it? Focus on what really matters. What you want is a healthier, happier life that reflects your values.”
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Rubin’s other bestseller is The Happiness Project, so her focus on happiness isn’t surprising. But Better Than Before does surprise, offering many “a-ha” moments. One for me was her “Finish Line” concept. People set a habit of not eating sweets, say, until they lose 10 pounds. But when the weight is gone, the finish line is crossed. Then what? Typically, they resume eating dessert and regain the weight. Better to set a habit of monitoring your food daily, a long-term weight-maintenance strategy that works for most people.
“Most people” leads to a key concept in the book. To make habits stick, Rubin says, know yourself. She divides people into four “tendencies” based on how they respond to internal or external expectations.
Here’s more from my interview with Rubin. Read to the end to learn how to win one of the five books she generously donated to Next Avenue.
Next Avenue: Please explain how habits let you do more important things in your life.
Rubin: The brain wants to make behaviors into habit. This frees up brainpower to deal with novel or complex situations. You conserve energy, because when you act out of habit, you don’t use decision-making, which is very draining. I don’t choose a time to wake up every day — I just always wake up at 6 a.m. It’s easy. I don’t spend time asking myself whether or not I should go to the gym — I just go. Because these are habits, I don’t have to use my self-control, and that ends up being freeing and energizing. I can focus on spending time with my family, or thinking about work.
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Describe the four tendencies.
There are Upholders — I’m an Upholder — who respond to both inner and outer expectations; they can keep to a goal they set for themselves as much or more than keeping one that comes from outside. They do both.
Questioners question, but once they decide something makes sense they will meet an expectation. But if they think it’s arbitrary or irrational or they don’t trust the person who sets the expectation, they won’t do it. They need to make outer expectations internal.
For Obligers, external accountability is key. Of everything in the book, one thing that’s been transformative is how Obligers now understand why they can’t do it on their own. I’ve heard this again and again on my book tour. Learning that they must have an external expectation, from a deadline, or a boss or a workout buddy — that’s been big.
Then there are Rebels. They don’t like outer or inner expectations. They don’t even like to tell themselves what to do. This frustrates many of them.
Upholders and Rebels are the most rare tendencies. The vast majority of people are Obligers and Questioners.
I’m curious about how age intersects with building habits. Isn’t building good habits at 50 or 60 easier than building them at 80?
I think the same tendencies and strategies I explain in the book apply across the board, for all ages. You can develop a good habit at any age. But the repercussions of not having good habits can be more serious due to natural aging. For example, as you get older, the fact that you resist taking prescription medication may be more important.
Some habits become more salient because they arise more. It’s common in adulthood to put on a pound a year, and while that’s not much when you go from age 25 to 35, by the time you’re 55, you’re looking at a situation where you really need to tackle weight in a more serious way.
(MORE: 7 Steps to Breaking a Bad Habit)
As you get older, you’re sleeping in the bed you’ve been making for more time. A reader just emailed me this morning: “Habits are the compound interest of life.” At a certain age we really see how health habits have a long-term effect. There’s the 70-year-old who bounds up the steps to catch the latest exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the counterpart who’s slowly, painfully walking down the street.
But having more time with an empty nest, or retirement, can also offer opportunities to focus on building good habits.
Yes, that’s one thing I’ve heard on the book tour. People say, ‘I’m retiring or downsizing, I’m starting with a clean slate.’ The clean slate is a strategy I write about — it’s super powerful and you don’t want to miss the opportunity to use a big change to make new habits. Think of it as: ‘Now I have a chance to do things a different way.’ Take advantage of it.
How do we sabotage our good habits — and mostly I want to hear you talk about the loopholes you say people take.
A loophole is where you find a way to let yourself off the hook — ‘I was going to do this, but now here comes this idea, so I’m not going to.’ For a lot of people, they flow through our mind so quickly that we’re not even aware we are invoking a loophole. Do you decide you only live once, so you should have the cupcake? If you wait a second, you will realize that eating it will probably make you feel bad in an hour. Even longer-term, you might live life to its fullest by becoming more healthy if you continually make better food choices.
Habits help you not be filled with regret. By giving yourself a lack of choice it’s really easier to be happier in the long run. I use the strategy of abstaining. It’s not for everyone, but when facing a strong temptation, sometimes it’s easier to just give up the thing all together. Then you don’t have to think or make a choice. But for some people, moderation is the way to go.
Do you ever stop making new habits? Is it ever done?
You need to make habits as long as you are solving a problem that a habit helps. This idea didn’t make it into the book, but my family just started a new email update. My mother started it because we all live far apart and we’re not in the flow of each other’s daily lives. When you see each other every day you have a million things to talk about, but when you don’t, it can be hard to connect. Our motto for the update is, ‘It’s OK to be boring.’ If my mom knows my daughters went to a friend’s birthday on the weekend, she can ask them on the phone, ‘How was the party?’ It’s a habit that is really strengthening our relationships.
In the book, you mention your daughter creating a story titled ‘Everyday Life in Utopia.’ That was a beautiful phrase and concept.
Yes, when she said it, my jaw dropped. That’s what we all want — we want everyday life in utopia. My interest in habits came out of my previous research in happiness. People want to be happy but can’t always figure out how to make important changes to get them there. Our habits can get in our way — but they can also help us. This book is about knowing who we are and what strategies will help us change so we can have a life that reflects our values, interest and natures.
Win The Book
To win one of five copies of Better Than Before, go to Next Avenue's Facebook page and answer the question: “If you could magically change one habit, what would it be?” Next Avenue will give out five books to comments that get the most "likes" by April 6. (We’ll message you via Facebook to get your snailmail address should you win.)
Check out Happier with Gretchen Rubin, the author’s new podcast about good habits and being happier. “My sister and I do it, and we don’t let each other get away with much,” Rubin says.
She also offers a quiz about tendencies on her website.
And there’s this checklist summarizing strategies. “It’s a one-page sheet,” Rubin says. “So if you have a habit you want to form, it lists all 21 strategies so you can check off what will help.”