The Counter-Intuitive Strategy that Really Works–For Habits, and Much Else.

I love Secrets of Adulthood, and am always listening to try to identify new ones. At first, I didn’t realize the usefulness of this Secret of Adulthood, which was given to me by an engineer friend: “If something doesn’t work one way, turn it around.”

Literally, if you can’t get a piece to fit, turn it around. And figuratively–if something’s not working, reverse it.

I’ve found this principle to be astonishingly useful. If some approach isn’t working, try the opposite.

For instance, I’m a person with pretty high self-control, and when I thought about trying to achieve certain aims by using more self-control, I could hardly bear the prospect. But then I realized I could do the opposite, by abandoning my self-control. (Granted, my method of abandoning self-control might surprise you, but it works.)

I see this principle over and over in the area of habit-formation. People assume that one way is the “right” way, even if they aren’t getting good results. Instead, it’s helpful to think — well, what I’m doing isn’t working, so I’ll turn it around.

I’m trying to start small, but it’s not working — so start big. Or vice versa.

I’m trying to follow a new habit first thing in the morning, but it’s not working — so try later in the day. Or vice versa.

I’m trying to be moderate, but it’s not working — so abstain altogether. Or vice versa.

People often ask, “What are the best habits to follow?” as though there’s one path that everyone should follow.  But I’ve concluded that the secret to having good habits is to figure out the habits work for us, and to make a great effort to maintain those habits.

There’s no magic formula—not for ourselves, and not for the people around us. We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best. So if something doesn’t work one way, turn it around.

I write much more about this in Better Than Before, my forthcoming book about how we make and break habits. Which, I must say, is one of the most fascinating subjects ever. To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

How about you? Have you ever found that doing the opposite of something was a good way to come up with a solution?


  • Oh goodness, this post is great! I never gave it a name but I can see what you’re saying. It’s really a matter of adjusting and fine-tuning until something works. I have been trying to reduce my Facebook usage to get more work done in these busy months, but no matter what I tried (scheduling some time for only Facebook, using it only as a “reward” for tasks) it never worked and I always ended up getting distracted. Finally I decided to ask David to change my password. Done. No more distractions (from that at least!) and no more using up my limited willpower avoiding this temptation.

    • Gillian

      Your point about “limited willpower” is a good one. I believe that we all have a willpower/self-discipline budget – there’s only so much available so we have to decide where to spend it. Some recent research confirms this. The thing that proved this theory in my case was coffee. About 25 years ago, a doctor told me that coffee aggravated a condition I had so I should avoid it. I immediately stopped drinking my 2 cups a day at work and reserved coffee for weekends and social occasions. I had no problem doing this and maintained this habit for almost 20 years. Then my office moved into a new building that had a nice coffee shop on the ground floor. I started to treat myself every once in a while to a coffee, then twice in a while and so on. I wanted to reverse this trend. Even when I calculated the cost of the coffees, it wasn’t enough motivation – unusual because cost is usually a big motivator for me. Eventually, I found that by mid-morning and mid-afternoon I was unable to concentrate on my work (which I enjoyed) because I wanted a coffee and I was spending all my willpower not going to get one. I would finally give in and fetch a coffee and went back to work at full concentration. It wasn’t the caffeine – the first sip hadn’t hit my stomach yet. It was the fact that my discipline was now available for the work and wasn’t being used fighting the urge for the coffee.

      • Thanks! I feel good when someone validates the points I make! I enjoyed reading your anecdote.

      • statmam

        Gillian, I like your anecdote too, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Did you return to drinking coffee regularly? Or did you find another way to break the coffee habit?

        • Gillian

          Yes, I gave in and returned to 2 coffees a day – mid-morning & mid-afternoon. It no longer seemed to have a negative physical effect and I accepted the financial cost. This was about 2 years before I retired and I wanted my last 2 years to be pleasant and productive and decided the cost was worth it for that. Now that I am retired, I have only one cup a day – after lunch.

    • Abby

      I use an app called Leech Block that prevents my accessing Facebook between 9 and 5 to help me with thus problem!

  • Jennie Williams Lutton

    I’ve found that instead of avoiding certain “not good for me” foods I do better when I just work on adding “healthy” food to my diet. If I commit to eating fruit at every snack or two veggies at every meal it takes care of the problem (partly anyway) with out denying myself!

  • Blair424

    When people set out to solve a problem, the first strategy they try is based on how they think the world should work. But sometimes the world doesn’t work the way we think it should; sometimes it works some other way. In fact, a lot of times, it works exactly the opposite of how we think it should! That’s why good problem solvers are humble. When they try a strategy and fail, they say, “Well, I obviously don’t understand the world as well as I thought I did. I’ve got some learning to do!” And I guess the lesson in Gretchen’s post is that sometimes we ourselves don’t always work the way we think we should; sometimes we work the exact opposite!

    • PolarSamovar

      This is very insightful.

      Too many of us, when the world doesn’t work the way we think it should, get bent out of shape and shout “straighten up and fly right, world!”

  • I feel that way with food-I’m better off not focussing on eating and controlling it and instead just eat when I’m hungry and eat what I want

  • Ashish Pandey

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  • Hi Gretchen,
    I am on the last chapter of your book, and your post today reminded me of a question I have…..
    When you were/are accumulating your Secrets of Adulthood, or your Splendid Truths, etc., Where did you record them? Do you have a notebook where you jot them down? On your iPad or computer? I am most interested in where you keep your collection of quotes. That is something that you have inspired me to do. When I read books (yours included!), I often underline compelling passages. But then that is all. I would love to copy them into a list of some sort, but I need an idea of how to do this, practically. Do you keep a notebook handy while reading to copy the quote? At some point do you type them into a word document. I loved the idea you shared of publishing the quotes in a book, and you said it took you only 20 minutes to do that… I am wondering where you kept the quotes in the meantime so that you could upload them in 20 minutes?
    I am so excited about starting my own Happiness Project!

    • gretchenrubin

      I keep everything on a computer, very loosely organized.

    • isabellagarden

      I’ve been keeping an inspirational quote notebook by my bedside for about 15 years. Whenever I find a quote that speaks to me I jot it down on a scrap paper until I’m able to write it in my small hand bound leather notebook. It’s a treasure that I refer to often.

  • Tanya

    One of my favourite habits at the moment is a great example of abandoning self control and thinking a different way about a problem. Here it is: I always turn off the lights in the bathroom before I do my evening bathroom routine. If I don’t, I inevitably pick my spots (zits). No light, can’t see anything to squeeze, feel happier, no scars to heal, prettier skin the next morning. Keeping the lights off takes no effort, but it really works for me!

    • Dayle

      Wow! What a great idea! I have a terrible “picking” habit and I always find after a weekend away from mirrors (ie camping) my skin improves, yet I can’t put this into practice at home. Thanks for the tip!

      • Tanya

        Definitely try it, even if everyone else thinks you’re crazy! I actually get compliments on my skin now, and it’s definitely partly due to that.

        • Chris

          I was told by a cosmetologist once that the important thing to know about “picking” is that you can do it as long as you have a clean(!) handkerchief wrapped around your fingers. It is not the “picking” that causes the inflammation but all the germs that we have on our hands.

  • Andes Mountain

    Hi Gretchen,
    I read the happiness project in 2010, and it changed my life. Have been following ever since.
    This post, is exactly what I need, but I don´t know how to apply it. I´ve been trying to downsize my wardrobe for years now and it only seems to get bigger (and I swear I´m not buying a thing). Any suggestions on turning it aroud?

    • gretchenrubin

      A few quick ideas:

      Go through your closet with a friend. That person can help you see what you no longer need.

      Also, know what you’ll do with the clothes you’re getting rid of. When you know a person who can use what you don’t wear anymore, or a worthy organization that can put them to use, it’s easier to let go. It’s more wasteful to keep them, unworn, than to send them along their way.

      Ask: does this garment fit NOW. Do I actually wear it, or does it fit a fantasy life I don’t really live?

      If a garment is kept because of its memento value, first set it aside. It doesn’t need to be stored in the precious real estate of your active closet, it can be put in a more out-of-the-way place. Also, do you have more memento garments than you need. If you have 10 t-shirts that remind you of college, can you keep one or two? Etc.

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