My New Book about Habit Formation, as Distilled in 21 Sentences.

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

Today: My new book about habit-formation, handily distilled into 21 sentences.

As I may have mentioned, I’m working on Better Than Before, a book about how we can change our habits. It’s at the copy-editing stage now, so it’s really nearing completion — both thrilling and slightly terrifying. (If you want to know when Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.)

In each chapter, I identify a strategy we can use to make and break habits.

I was thinking of Lytton Strachey’s observation, “Perhaps the best test of a man’s intelligence is his capacity for making a summary.” So I decided to try to summarize each chapter of Better Than Before in a single sentence.  The entire gist of the book, in 21 sentences.

You may think, “Twenty-one strategies! That’s overwhelming.” It may seem like a lot, but it’s actually helpful, because you can choose the ones that work for you. For instance, if you’re a Rebel, you’re not likely to use the Strategy of Scheduling, but the Strategy of Identity would work well. Or if you’re an Obliger, the Strategy of Clarity will be much less important than Accountability.

Many experts suggest one-size-fits-all solutions for habit change — and boy, it would be great if there were one magical answer that helped everyone. But we’re all different, so different strategies work for different people.

In fact, that’s why the first two Strategies relate to Self-Knowledge…


The Four Tendencies: To change your habits, you have to know yourself, and in particular, your Tendency. (Are you an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel?)

Distinctions: Knowing yourself is so important that it’s not enough to know your Tendency, you must also recognize your Distinctions. (For instance, are you a Marathoner or Sprinter? Under-buyer or over-buyer? Finisher or Opener? Novelty-lover or Familiarity-lover?)

 Pillars of Habits

Monitoring: You manage what you monitor, so find a way to monitor whatever matters.

Foundation: First things first, so begin by making sure to get enough sleep, eat and drink right, move, and un-clutter.

Scheduling: If it’s on the calendar, it happens.

Accountability:  You do better when you know someone’s watching–even if you’re the one doing the watching.

 The Best Time to Begin

First Steps:  It’s enough to begin; if you’re ready, begin now.

Clean Slate: Temporary becomes permanent, so start the way you want to continue.

Lightning Bolt: A single idea can change the habits of a lifetime, overnight. (Enormously powerful, but hard to invoke on command.)

 Desire, Ease, and Excuses

Abstaining: For some of us, moderation is too tough; it’s easier to give up something altogether. (Works very well for some people, and not at all for others.)

Convenience: Make it easy to do right and hard to go wrong.

Inconvenience: Change your surroundings, not yourself.

Safeguards: Plan to fail.

Loophole-Spotting: Don’t kid yourself. (The funniest strategy. I love collecting loopholes.)

Distraction: Wait fifteen minutes.

Reward:  The reward for a good habit is the good habit, and that’s the reward to give yourself.  (The most misunderstood strategy.)

Treats: It’s easier to ask more of yourself when you’re giving more to yourself. (The most fun strategy.)

Pairing:  Only do X when you’re doing Y. (Simple but surprisingly effective.)

 Unique, Just like Everyone Else

Clarity: The clearer you are about what you want, the more likely you are to stick to your habits.

Identity: Your habits reflect your identity, so if you struggle to change a particular habit, re-think your identity.

Other People: Your habits rub off on other people, and their habits rub off on you.

Have I forgotten any strategies? Which ones appeal most to you? I’m an Upholder, so I like just about all the Strategies.

Habit-formation is an endlessly fascinating subject. If you want to know when Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.

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  • Kathy

    I am so looking forward to this book, Gretchen. I’ve enjoyed (and learned from) both of your books on happiness. Looks like there will be lots of good stuff in the new one, too. I like and use convenience and treats right now, and I want to start using clarity and identity more.

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific – I’m so happy to hear that.

  • Alice Gvdn

    I stole ” the hapiness project” book from my mom bookshelf and always feel more happy and confident after reading it. Even just reading one chapter when i don’t have much time seems to lift my spirits. Unfortunatly your second book is stll not translated in french…but not sure i’ll be able to wait for the translation of “better than before”. I really like the way your books mix everyone experiences, scientific facts and famous quotes. Anyways Habits seem to be a real trend now. there is even a “game” about it. It’s an app with a to do list like so many other but this one makes you level up when you complete your task, so here you have the reward, and then you can join a guild and here is your accountability. it’s called HabitRPG. Found it a couple days ago and really it’s fun how i understand how it can work, how it uses differents strategies to help people enforce habits. So yeah, i’m looking forward to the completion of your book cause i already feel like i learned a lot thanks to this blog.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that it resonates with you.

  • Felicity

    Hi Gretchen! Just wondering if you have anything in your book about how you choose which habits you would like to form, or dropping habits which turn out to be a bad idea. I’m thinking here about habits that seem like a good idea but grow rigid and turn out to be harmful to our health, physical and/or mental: e.g. healthy eating plans that slide into eating disorders, or precautions of any type that grow into phobias.
    I’m also mindful of some other mentions you have made about how you are quite good at making yourself do things even if they’re not pleasant, and how you need to be careful about which direction you head off in, as it may turn out to be ‘not for you’ e.g. being a lawyer vs. being a writer. I think some sort of mention of that – how you choose the direction in which you’re going – would be helpful. 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      I don’t write about addictions, compulsions, or nervous habits, so don’t really venture into the area when good habits turn bad that way. It’s important, but not something I know anything about.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I have been fascinated to find how congruent your work is with my attempts to build better habits and routines. I don’t question which is the chicken and which the egg, I just make use of your oh-so-helpful advice to try to change for the better. I am finding that there are several things I didn’t know before that I know now:
    1. ACCRETION: If I want a new habit I try to add it to routines (made up of habits) that I have already established. For example, I am now working to bring a long-tormenting back pain problem under better control. So I have added the physical therapy exercises prescribed to my morning and evening routines (already improved by flossing my teeth and making my bed and writing in my journal etc).
    2. RECOGNIZING LOOPHOLES: Let me count the ways (or not). It is so hard to excuse myself from lapses these days now that you have identified all these excuses for what they are!
    3. CONSISTENCY: I was so gobsmacked when you SAID what I have so often felt, but until you said it felt that I was being too rigid–if a thing is worth doing, it is probably worth doing EVERY DAY. If you are an abstainer, well then it is better to just cut that out altogether. Going to bed and getting up at the same time seven nights and days a week? Been doing it for years. Now I feel completely right about it!
    4. MONITORING: I knew this, so what prevents me from doing it? Only loophole-seeking behavior.
    I am sure that I could come up with more, but these are the ones that really make a big difference to me.

  • Mara

    Hi Gretchen, I’ve read your other books and look forward to this one. ! I’ve been wondering– will there be a memoir aspect to Better Than Before?

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! Yes, it’s told from the first-person perspective. You will learn more about my habits than you ever want to know. Also, lots of other people’s habits.

  • Flower

    Hi Gretchen, will your book available in UK as well?

    • gretchenrubin


  • kamran

    Inspiring and detailed article. Thank you for this.

  • Eyen1971

    I can’t WAIT for this new book! The Happiness Project was instrumental in me starting to try to live the best life possible.

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! I’m so happy to hear that.

  • Mahawa Komala

    I love all of those strategies, they all re-felt on our daily life, I just can’t wait to read the upcoming book (Better than Before) . I have learned and enjoyed many things from your happiness project.

  • In preparation to your book, readers may consider reading The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It details the habit cycle which imparts knowledge as to the phychological side of it. It is not concrete as to steps of change. It sounds as if that is what your book will do. I look forward to it.

  • Bonnie Warner

    I have ordered your book “Better Than Before”.

    I can’t wait til it gets here!

    I am a “Rebel”. Deep down I already knew this, but was hoping I was wrong!!!

    I took the quiz. What do you know? Suprise, I am a REBEL! OY!!!

    Following the quiz there is an explanation of Rebel tenancies:

    “Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They act from a sense of choice, from freedom. Rebels wake up and think, “What do I want to do today?”

    They resist control, even self-control, and enjoy flouting rules and expectations. They sometimes frustrate others—and even themselves—because they resist any expectation, even one that’s self-imposed.

    Rebels resist habits, but they can embrace habit-like behaviors by tying their actions to their choices and their identity.”

    I am happy to discover that i am not the only one with these tendencies.

    They are frustrating, to say the least, to others. But they are most frustrating to me.

    Let’s face it, to survive and be successful there are things we need to do. No matter how much we do not want to do them!
    Being a Rebel has held me back from so many things I wanted to do. As well as things I want to do and need to do (like going back to work after an illness).

    There are steps I need to take to get back to work. But I don’t do them because, I don’t feel like it. There are times I get tons of stuff done, finishing my resume, contacting references, etc. But I do them when I feel like it!

    Being a Rebel is frustrating! And though I know I need to make changes, my desire to do what I want, when I want, seems to always trump what I should, need to be doing!

    I can’t wait to get your book. I am hoping it will help me learn the strategies I need to form habits, though I am a Rebel!!!

    • lisagd22

      Being a Rebel has meant I’ve lived a life of I Meant To’s, I Should Haves, and I Wish I Hads, accompanied by the self-loathing that goes along with them.

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  • Katie

    Gretchen, your advice and experiences are so moving. I happened across the Happiness Project as I was making the painful decision to ask my husband for a separation. Your book literally held my hand through the most painful time in my life and kept me hunting for a better Katie. Thank you for your insight and willingness to share your experiences! Here’s to Being Katie for the first time in a decade!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that my work was helpful to you during a tough time. Be Katie!