Video: For Habits, the Strategy of Self-Knowledge

This week’s video: I’m starting a series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. When I talk to people about their happiness challenges, they often point to hurdles related to a habit they want to make or break. My book describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits.

First up: Self-knowledge. Key! Crucial! Essential!

One aspect of Self-Knowledge is knowing where you fit in the framework of the Four Tendencies. I’ve talked about that so much recently that I decided to skip that for now, and come back to it. I remain obsessed, but it may not be of equal interest to everyone all the time.


But there are many important distinctions that can help us know ourselves better. To read more about the ones I mention…are you a:

-morning person or night person?

-marathoner or sprinter?

-simplicity-lover or abundance-lover?

-finisher or opener?

They say there are two types of people: those who love dividing the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. I love dividing the world into categories. I could keep going. Abstainers and moderators. Radiators and drains. Leopards and alchemists.  Under-buyers and over-buyers. Eeyores and Tiggers.

Do you find that thinking about these distinctions helps you understand yourself better? Of course, this exercise is meant to broaden self-understanding, not trap us into a single rigid identity.

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  • Penelope Schmitt

    Definitely, I’m a “Lark” and moreso as I get older. Morning IS when I do my best work. After dinner, I need to be flat on the couch. So I know to put important stuff in the mornings.
    Opener. Oh yeah. I have so many projects begun, and I always have new ideas beckoning me ‘off focus’ when I am engaged in creation. In fact, I used to think there was some ‘spooky significance’ to my name, ‘Penelope’ as she is quite literally the queen of an unfinished project–she said she would choose a new husband when she finished weaving her father’s shroud, wove all day, and ripped out at night. Well, the making and the ripping out are certainly part of my life. But FINISHING is also now part of my life–a major and very satisfying victory. I will always have many more ideas than executions, but I DO finish now, and it is SO satisfying.
    Abundance–I love order more than I thought, but I have to fight for order. Abundance comes naturally. I just have to work to make sure it does not bury me in so much that I can’t get anything done or enjoy my surroundings. I have come to appreciate de-cluttering and routines and order.
    I am a bit of a sprinter, though I have cultivated some marathoning habits that truly serve me well. I do tend to leave some big things closer to the last minute, but as I age, I have spontaneously moved up the deadlines to give myself more margins. I do not enjoy all nighters and never have. But I do like the intensity of crashing on a project OCCASIONALLY.

    • johanna Knaus

      great video, Gretchen! I love watching you talk with her hands and I learn so much from the videos. I think I am an auditory learner and also an owl. Thanks again .

  • Gillian

    I have so much trouble figuring out which group I fit into with most of your categorizations. I often find myself saying “it depends” or “all of the above”.

    When I took your 4 Tendencies quiz, I scored 6 each for Upholder & Questioner and 4 for Obliger. However, I have zero Rebel tendencies.

    Morning/Night Person – I have difficulty waking up fully in the morning. It takes me 20-30 minutes from the time I first open my eyes until I can get out of bed feeling fully awake. Then I generally putter around, usually on the computer, doing pleasant unimportant things until I can shift myself into gear to tackle the day. However, I don’t like starting anything too late in the day. Part of my problem is that it takes me a long time to “psyche up” to do anything so I have a lot of dead time between activities. I have good powers of concentration so once I have started something, I can keep at it for hours – until late in the evening if necessary. One 10-hour project in a day – no problem. But don’t expect me to do five 2-hour projects in that same time because it won’t happen; at best I’d manage 2. I think perhaps I’m neither a morning nor night person but a daytime person. My evenings are usually a write-off – once I’ve had dinner, it’s TV time. Mind you, I watch a lot of documentaries so that isn’t always a waste of time.

    Marathoner/Sprinter – I think a marathoner. I don’t like deadlines so I try to start things well before they are due to avoid that stress but I have to overcome some strong procrastinator tendencies to do that. I don’t like to do a little bit every day – once started on a project, I keep at it until it’s done, to the exclusion, as much as possible, of all other activities. Once it’s done, I move on to the next project – after the requisite amount of time to psyche myself up. I absolutely do not multi-task well. Jumping back and forth between activities drives me nuts.

    Simplicity/Abundance Lover – Mostly simplicity. I am an under-buyer. This is partially for the philosophical reason that I try to keep my consumption to a minimum. But it is also because I am easily overwhelmed and can’t make decisions. I often go into a store to buy something, start looking at the myriad choices, become totally confused and leave with nothing. I do, however, like to be sure I have enough of the day-to-day operational requirements on hand so that I don’t run out. And I have multiples of some things for convenience – e.g. several nail-files, scissors, etc. in different locations so that when I need one, there is one handy.

    Finisher/Opener – Mostly a finisher. I hate waste so I use up the last drop of everything before throwing out the package and I have only one package of anything on the go at one time. However, I do enjoy opening a fresh package of something. When I was in school, I used to love the beginning of the year with all the fresh new school supplies. Because I am a finisher and an under-buyer, when I do acquire something new, it brings a special sense of delight.
    It is useful to think about these questions. Once you know yourself, you can start being yourself and start using your individual traits to your advantage. As is often the case, putting all this in writing has clarified my thinking.

  • Krystal

    Like the person below who commented, I also think it is sometimes tricky to decide which group I fit into with many of your categories. (Maybe I’m a Questioner?) But this video was really interesting and helpful, particularly your example about finishers vs. starters. I didn’t think I could figure out which one I was until you used the example of the open containers of granola. I could really relate to that! Being able to identify how much I like finishing things suddenly helped me to understand why I can have a tendency to feel exhausted and overwhelmed when there are too many projects “open.” Your examples often really help me to understand the concept you are communicating. Thanks!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks, that’s great to hear!

  • AnnaKate

    Thanks for giving me these cool things to think about.
    I like the nighttime. I try to plan my day so it starts around 1pm. I always want to go back to sleep when I wake up in the morning. So. for me my good productive time starts at about 1pm and ends at 12 am. I like quiet things and not a lot of people in the morning.
    I think I am a sprinter who wishes she was a marathoner. I don’t like having too much time to do things. And I love the time deadline for doing things to be there so I feel the time crunch to get things done. I do put things off until closer to the deadline.
    I am an abundance-lover. I love lots and lots of things. I like having many dishes to use. I have a reader because I like to keep every book I buy, and I buy too many books to own. I love Netflix because I can watch all shorts of movies. Even with foods I can’t seem to stop eating something, and given a choice I would just add in another thing, and not take something away.
    I am a finsher who hates opening new things. This makes it really hard to chose what to do in a new project. I love old things, and hate doing something new.

  • Gretchen,

    Another very interesting way to look at oneself, and when you were describing the category I was categorising both myself (morning, marathoner, simplicity, finisher) and my boyfriend (night, sprinter, abundance, opener) which lead me to think that could be a useful way to understand compatibilities in a group.
    In a work environment it’s not always easy being the only marathoner in a group of sprinters for instance.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes! I’ve talked to many people about their work situation, and it was clear to me that a big problem was that they were surrounded by people – or more often, worked for a boss – who belonged to a different category.

      Like the Marathoner lawyer who changed jobs because she couldn’t stand how her Sprinter boss prepared the briefs. And like the Sprinter tech guy who gave me a long lecture on why sprinting was the better way for teams to work together. It is better – FOR HIM.

      On the other hand, maybe it’s good – at least in some situations – to have a mix. Knowing consciously how styles differ makes it easier to manage the tensions that arise.

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  • JeanStar

    I want to be a marathoner but I procrastinate. Does that mean I’m a sprinter?

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