Better Than Before: Making & Keeping Resolutions
In Better Than Before, writer Gretchen Rubin—author of the mega-bestseller, The Happiness Project—challenges us to re-think all the expert advice we’ve ever been given about making and breaking habits. Because, she says, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Through exhaustive research and her own observations, Rubin concluded that the “right” way to form a new habit or change an old one largely depends on how we respond to expectations. She came up with a framework that categorizes people into four groups based on how we typically respond to inner and outer expectations. And from there, she rolls out the various strategies that suit each group and our individual idiosyncrasies—whether you want to eat better, work out more, get organized, go to bed earlier, and so on.
Although it’s true that Rubin will help you with what she calls the secret of habit change—first, we must know ourselves—this is also a book that compels you to think about the people around you. Better Than Before makes a powerful case for why we shouldn’t necessarily push our “tried-and-true” methods on others—to each his own—and got us thinking about how our habits interact with the habits of the people closest to us. Below, we asked Rubin for more insight into habits and happiness.
A Q&A with Gretchen Rubin
Why do we have so much to gain from eliminating decisions in our lives?
It’s difficult and depleting to make decisions. People sometimes tell me, “I want to go through my day making healthy choices,” and I say, “No, you don’t! Because every choice is the opportunity to make the wrong choice.”
We want to choose once, then stop choosing. With habits, we avoid the drain on our energy that decision-making costs.
I don’t decide to skip dessert, or go to my strength-training session, or to wake up at 6am. That was decided long ago.
You mention a few times in the book that habits—even good ones—can have disadvantages as well as benefits. “Habit is a good servant but a bad master,” you write. Can you talk about this a bit—the potential drawbacks of habits, and how we ensure that we are the masters of our habits and not the other way around?
There are two drawbacks to habits.
First, habits speed time. When every day is the same, experience shortens and blurs; by contrast, time slows down when habits are interrupted, when the brain must process new information. That’s why the first month at a new job seems to last longer than the fifth year at that job.
Second, habits also deaden. As something becomes a habit, we have a less emotional response to it (which can be a good thing, in some situations, but also a bad thing). An early-morning cup of coffee was delightful at first, until it gradually became part of the background of my day; now I don’t really taste it, but I’m frantic if I don’t get it. Habit makes it dangerously easy to become numb to our own existence.
For these reasons, it’s important that we think hard about the habits that we want. So mindfully use the mindlessness of habits!
The framework you created to make sense of the different ways that people respond to habits was both fascinating and in some ways blessedly simple. Will you take us through the four categories and how you came up with them?
It took me months of rumination to make sense of everything I’d observed, and to fit it into a system that accounted for everything. I’ll never forget the thrill I felt when everything at last fell into place. A key insight came when a friend told me, “It’s weird. When I was in high school, I was on the track team, and I never missed track practice—but I can’t go running now. Why?” This question haunted me until I figured out the answer. She’s an Obliger! (See below.)
According to the Four Tendencies framework, people fall into one of four groups: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels.
It relates to how we respond to expectations. We all face two kinds of expectations: outer expectations (meet work deadlines, observe traffic regulations) and inner expectations (start practicing guitar, keep a New Year’s resolution).
Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations. “I do what others expect of me—and what I expect from myself.”
Questioners question all expectations. They meet an expectation only if they believe it’s reasonable (effectively making it an inner expectation). “I do what I think is best, according to my judgment. I won’t do something that doesn’t make sense.”
Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. “I don’t like to let others down, but I often let myself down.”
Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. “I want to do what I want, in my own way. If you tell me to do it, I’m less likely to do it.”
Once we know our Tendency, we have a better idea of what habit-change strategy will work for us. For instance, Upholders do especially well with the Strategy of Scheduling, Questioners with the Strategy of Clarity, Obligers with the Strategy of Accountability, and Rebels with the Strategy of Identity.
You can take the online quiz to learn your Tendency.
There is a lot of material out there about the best habits, whose habits we should emulate, why waking up early is important, how we should structure the time we spend on email, etc. But you argue against copying other people’s habits—making the case that the first step in forming a habit is knowing ourselves so we can figure out which habits suit us best. How did you come to this conclusion?
The most important thing to know is what’s true for you, because experts often offer one-size-fits-all solutions. “Do it first thing in the morning, start small, do it for 30 days, give yourself a cheat day”—the list goes on.
Those work sometimes, for some people. But they don’t work all the time for all people. Ask yourself: What are you like? That’s the most important thing to think of. You’re going to have the greatest likelihood of tackling habits if you find the right way for you.
One of the great takeaways of Better than Before is that what might work for you habit-wise is not necessarily best for your friend, kid, partner, employee. What’s the best approach for supporting the habits of the people around us? And do you have any particular tips for those of us with Rebel loved ones?
Remember that people may need something very different from you. This is where the Four Tendencies can help.
For instance, as an Upholder, I don’t need much accountability to stick to my good habits, and I used to resist when people asked me to hold them accountable. Now I understand: If a person requests accountability, do it! Those folks are Obligers, who need accountability.
Also, my husband is a Questioner, and I couldn’t understand why he often challenged what I asked him to do. Now I understand: He needs reasons, and if he understands why he’s expected to do something, he’ll do it.
For Rebels, it’s crucial to remember that the Rebel will do what the Rebel wants to do. The more Rebels are reminded, nagged, or ordered to do something, the more likely they are to resist.
However, they’re powerfully motivated by the Strategy of Identity. If something is important to them—to be a respected employee, a loving parent, a thoughtful friend—they will do it.
They love a challenge. And they’re often driven to do something with the thought, “I’ll show you!”
And no matter what our Tendency, we’re all powerfully influenced by convenience. The Strategy of Convenience holds that if we want to solidify a habit, we should make it as convenient as possible (or if we don’t want to do something, make it inconvenient.) Often, we can help others by making it more or less convenient for them to do something.
Also, with the Strategy of Other People—other people will tend to pick up your habits. So set a good example! If you want your kids to eat a healthy breakfast, eat one yourself.
It’s interesting that so often parents, teachers, and employers attempt to encourage good habits by offering rewards, but that research shows that rewards do not tend to support long term habits—when the reward stops, the habit stops. And even more so, that many rewards actually undermine the habit that they are supposed to be encouraging. Can we be using rewards in a smarter way or is the bottom line that we should steer clear?
You’re right; rewards often undermine habits.
For one thing, a reward teaches you that you wouldn’t do a particular activity for its own sake, but only to earn that reward; therefore, you learn to associate the activity with an imposition, a deprivation, or suffering.
Also, rewards pose a danger for habits because they require a decision. A habit, by my definition, is something we do without decision-making, so making a decision such as, “Do I get my reward today?” “Do I deserve this?” “Have I done enough to earn the cash bonus?” exhausts precious mental energy and moves attention away from the habit to the reward.
There’s one way to use a reward to strengthen a habit—by choosing a reward that takes you deeper into that habit. If you’re doing a lot of yoga, get a new yoga mat. If you’re packing lunch from home, splurge on a terrific lunch box.
We do a detox every January (coming January 7th) so we were particularly tuned in to the section on Blast Starts, which you explain as “the opposite of taking the smallest possible first step.” What are the advantages of a Blast Start, and, knowing that the level of commitment is often unsustainable in the long term, how do we form a lasting good habit afterwards?
Blast Starts are demanding, but that’s part of the fun—and that intensity can energize a habit. A 21-day project, a detox, a cleanse, an ambitious goal, a boot camp—by tackling more instead of less, for a certain period, you get a surge of energy and focus. (Not to mention bragging rights.) However, a Blast Start isn’t sustainable. It’s crucial to plan specifically how to shift from the intensity of the Blast Start into the habit that will continue indefinitely. If you give up sugar for January—what are you eating on February 18? You need a plan for how to transition from intense effort into daily routine.
Many people think of guilt or shame as constructive when it comes to sticking to good habits but you say the opposite is true. Why is that, and how do we avoid feelings of guilt when we inevitably slip up?
You’re so right—it’s not helpful to load ourselves with guilt and shame.
People who show compassion toward themselves are better able to regain self-control, while people who feel deeply guilty and full of self-blame struggle more.
Instead of beating ourselves up for being “weak” or “undisciplined” or “lazy,” we can see our stumbles as part of the habit-formation process. Self-encouragement is a greater safeguard than self-blame.
Indeed, guilt and shame about breaking a good habit can make people feel so bad that they seek to make themselves feel better—by indulging in the very habit that made them feel bad in the first place. The person who feels anxious about money goes gambling; the person who feels anxious about her weight turns to French fries. We should be gentle with ourselves.
For everyone attempting a new habit in 2016, will you please offer a few last words of wisdom?
The true secret to changing our habits: To change our habits, we first have to know ourselves. When we identify key aspects of our nature, we can tailor a habit to suit our particular idiosyncrasies, and that way, we set ourselves up for success. In Better Than Before, I talk about the many strategies for habit change, and show how various strategies work better or worse for different people, given their diverse natures.
So think about what’s true for you. Are you a morning person or a night person? Finisher or opener? Abundance-lover or simplicity-lover? Abstainer or Moderator? Marathoner or Sprinter? Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel? Different habit strategies will work for you.
It’s not that hard to change our habits, when we know what to do.