7 Tips for Helping Someone Else to Change a Habit.

In my book Better Than Before, I write about the many strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. There’s a big menu of choices, which is great, because it means that we all have a variety from which to pull. Some strategies work for some people, but not others. Some strategies are available to us at certain times, but not other times.

In Better Than Before, I focus mostly on what we can do, ourselves, to change our habits. But it’s very obvious that each of us can have a lot of influence on other people’s habits.  And often we really, really, really want to help someone else to change a key habit.

So, if you want to help someone else to change an important habit (and I’ve certainly tried to do this myself, many times, in my loving habits-bully way), here are a few top strategies to try:

  1. The Strategy of the Four Tendencies. Figure out if the person is an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel. You can read about the framework here; take the online quiz here. This is a crucial step, because once you know a person’s Tendency, the approach that works with an Obliger might make things worse with a Rebel. Chiefly…
  2. The Strategy of Accountability. This strategy is helpful for many people, but it’s crucial for Obligers, and often counter-productive for Rebels. A key point about other people and accountability? If someone asks you to hold him or her accountable, do it — and if you don’t want to do it yourself (because it can be a lot of work to hold someone accountable), help that person find other mechanisms of accountability. If a person asks for accountability, it’s because that person knows that it’s important. Many people — Upholders like me, and Questioners, and Rebels — often resist holding others accountable, but it can be invaluable.
  3. The Strategy of Convenience. Make the habit more convenient. We’re powerfully influenced by how easy it is to do something. You can help by making a habit quicker and easier. Can you leave a pill out on a dish by the coffee machine, so your sweetheart takes it every morning? Can you keep a bowl of hard-boiled eggs in the fridge to be an easy, healthy snack? Can you pull out a pile of board books, clear off the sofa, and say, “Would it be fun for you to read to  the baby for a few minutes?” Can you allow a child to keep an instrument, music stand, and music out in the living room all the time, so all those things don’t need to be pulled out and put away with every practice session?
  4. The Strategy of Treats. Whether or not a person needs accountability (see #2), activities are often more fun when we do them with someone else. Will someone enjoy a walk more, if you go, as well?  Is it more fun for that person to cook if you’re in the kitchen, or you go shopping, too?
  5. The Strategy of Clarity. When it’s not clear exactly what we’re supposed to do, we often get paralyzed and do nothing. Can you keep track of the medication schedule or the physical therapy regimen for someone else?
  6. The Strategy of Safeguards. With our habits, it helps to plan for failure. You can help someone else to anticipate difficult circumstances, and to come up with an “if-then” plan of action — whether for the holidays, for the office party, for the vacation, for the bad weather, or whatever it might be. Research shows that people do much better when they have a plan for dealing with these kinds of stumbling blocks.
  7. The Strategy of Distinctions. We’re more alike, and less alike, than we think. One difference is the Abstainer vs. Moderator approach to strong temptation. Abstainers find it easier to give things up altogether; Moderators like to indulge in moderation. Say your sweetheart wants to cut back on sugar, but you want to keep ice cream in the fridge. You say, “Just have a small serving, learn to manage yourself.” Ah, that works for Moderators. But if your sweetheart is an Abstainer, he or she will find it far easier to have none — and it’s easier to have none if there’s no ice cream in the house. So, even if you don’t find it difficult to ignore that container in the freezer, your sweetheart might do much better if you go out for ice cream if you have a craving.

You might be thinking, “Well, the problem with these ideas is that I have to do something.” That’s right. Sometime we have to make an effort ourselves, to help someone else change a habit. And even if you think that these steps aren’t “your job” — but we can always choose to do something out of love, to help someone else.

Have you found a way to help someone else change a habit? We can all learn from each other.

  • Thanks, Gretchen! Now I don’t need to write a similar blog post based on what I’ve learned from your book. I have in mind my organizing clients, rather than loved ones, but the tips for helping “someone else” apply to both. 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific!

  • Mimi Gregor

    I don’t have this particular problem, but in the instance where one person likes to eat ice cream, and the other person is an abstainer, the trick might be to disguise the ice cream as something else. Get an empty zip-top bag from, say, frozen broccoli. Scoop the ice cream into the empty bag and put back in the freezer. It will be there when you want ice cream (when the other person isn’t home, otherwise the gig is up), but the other person is very unlikely to get a sudden craving for broccoli and find it.

    • gretchenrubin

      Hilarious!

    • YOLO

      thnks for the laugh

  • Thanks for this post – it has arrived at just the right time!

  • Mairsydoats

    In number 4, you say Strategy of Treats, but seem to be talking about the Strategy of Other People. I mean, sometimes it may be a treat for others to be with me, but…

  • debbiedarline

    Gretchen, I think that I might be benefiting from you being an upholder married to a questioner. Because I am a questioner myself, you have almost always answered my questions about your advice before I even think to ask them! I love that your strategies are so well thought out. Just this past month I have used your Strategy of Clarity (difficult home remodeling project), Strategy of Safeguards (navigating conversations with nearly 50 relatives) and Strategy of Convenience (keeping healthy foods convenient and readily available during the holidays). Thanks again for all you do – I really appreciate it!!!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! I’m so happy to hear that.

  • #4 sounds interesting, because I mainly have had someone around for accountability and not just purely for fun. Thx for your thoughts Gretchen.

  • I’m not sure if you can help me with this question. I am very good at creating and sticking to habits on my own but as soon as my partner is home (for example maybe he is on holidays from work) I find it REALLY hard. I think we just completely clash and our habits just don’t work with each other.
    He is also not on board in trying to create or change any of his habits. So it’s all on me to find a solution to this.
    I usually end up writing off my routine until he goes back to work and then I play catch up. But then I can’t seem to enjoy the time he is home because my mind feels so cluttered and my house is literally cluttered too.
    Any advice?

    • gretchenrubin

      I write a lot about this in Better Than Before, in the “Strategy of Other People” chapter. It’s tough! Good luck!

      • Thanks for your reply. I should have finished the book before I asked the question. Always getting ahead of myself.

    • YOLO

      Hi Melanie,
      I have the exact same problem and unfortunately never been able to fix it. I wished I had a solution to share with you though. Good luck and hang in there sweetie you’ll be fine!

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