Don’t Fall for the Common Habits Myth that Stops People from Making Successful Change.

Assay: People often ask me, “Why do we struggle so hard to change our habits–why do we so often fail?

There are a few reasons, but there’s one big one — a popular myth about habits that leads people astray. It makes them accuse themselves of being lazy, self-indulgent, and lacking in will-power. It causes them to fail.

What is this myth? It’s the myth that there’s a magic, one-size-fits-all solution for habit change.

You’re read the headline: “The habits that successful people follow each morning!” “Follow these 3 secret habits of millionaires! “The one habit you must follow if you want to get ahead!” “The five habits of all highly creative people!”

But here’s what I’ve discovered. And you know this, too — because it’s perfectly obvious from looking at the world around us.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. There’s no one “best” habit.

 

Or rather, there is a one-size-fits-all-solution, which is: Follow the habits that work for you, that help make you happier, healthier, and more productive.

What works for you might be very different from what worked for your brother or Steve Jobs or  Virginia Woolf.

Often, people make the case for adopting a particular habit by pointing to a renowned figure who practiced that habit, with great success. For instance…

  • Maybe we should live a life of quiet predictability, like Charles Darwin. Or maybe we should indulge in boozy revelry, like Toulouse-Lautrec.
  • Maybe we should wake up early, like Haruki Murakami. Or maybe we should work late into the night, like Tom Stoppard.
  • Maybe it’s okay to procrastinate endlessly, like William James.  Or maybe it’s better to work regular hours, like Anthony Trollope.
  • Should we work in silence, like Gustav Mahler? Or amidst a bustle of activity, like Jane Austen?
  • Maybe it’s helpful to drink a lot of alcohol, like Fried­rich Schiller. Or a lot of coffee, like Kierkegaard.
  • Are we better off produc­ing work for many hours a day, like H. L. Mencken? Or maybe for just thirty minutes a day, like Gertrude Stein.

 

The sad fact is, there’s no magic formula, no one-size-fits-all solution—not for ourselves, and not for the peo­ple around us.

We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive and healthy by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.

In his fascinating book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, from which these examples are drawn, Mason Currey exhaustively examines the work habits of 161 writers, composers, artists, scientists, and philos­ophers.

These examples make one thing perfectly clear: while these brilliant people vary tre­mendously in the specific habits they follow, they all know very well what habits work for them, and they go to enormous lengths to maintain those habits.

This “one-size-fits-all” myth is dangerous, and it makes people feel terrible about themselves, because they think, “Well, you’re supposed to get exercise first thing in the day, and I tried to get up early and go for a run, and I totally couldn’t stick to it. See, I’m a lazy person with no will-power.” Or they think, “The secret is to indulge in moderation, and I’ve been trying to limit myself to one-half cup of ice-cream each night, but each night, I break down and eat the whole container. I’m such a loser.”

When I talk to people like this, I say, “No, that’s not true about you! You just haven’t set yourself up for success. There’s a way for you to change those habits, with much better results — because it’s tailored to you.”

Now, I speak of this one-size-fits-all myth from first-hand knowledge, because for a long time, I believed in it, too.

I used to tell everyone that working slowly and steadily was the best way to produce creative work. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to encourage everyone to get up early, to work in the morning. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to say that it was better to work in a reasonably quiet, calm, orderly environment. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to say that it was better to give up sugar, cold turkey, and just never indulge. Because that’s what works for me.

But as I worked on Better Than Before, it became increasingly clear to me that the opposite habits work better for some people.

 

We have to think about ourselves. It’s helpful to ask, “When have I worked well in the past? What did my habits look like then – and how can I replicate them?” Maybe you work more creatively with a team – or by yourself. Maybe you need deadlines – or maybe you feel strangled by deadlines. Maybe you like working on several projects at once — or you prefer to focus on one project at a time.

With habits, as with happiness, the secret is to figure out ourselves. When we shape our habits to suit our own nature, our own interests, and our own values, we set ourselves up for success.

This is so important that in Better Than Before, the first two chapters focus on self-knowledge. Once you know yourself better, you can figure out how to use the other nineteen strategies more effectively — and with less frustration. It’s not that hard to change your habits–when you know what to do.

What have you learned about yourself and your own unique habit fingerprint — and what works for you? Any thing that surprised you?

  • Penelope Schmitt

    EXCEPT — it seems that all these successful people DID have HABITS. Their style or choices might vary wildly, but the essential seems to be that they had some sort of habitual pattern that assisted them in getting things done.

    I am coming to the conclusion that your abstainer / moderator dichotomy, combined with habits, could be key to my decades-long struggle to keep my food intake within bounds. Constant monitoring is certainly burdensome. There just is no doubt about it, that is something artificial that I seem not to be able to sustain. Habitually refraining / abstaining from some things might be a simpler solution. Sugar and carbs in general seem to be the main culprits in weight gain for me.

    We shall see.

    • They have habits and they have habits that worked for them. I guess that is the one size fits all answer, find something you can stick to! =)

    • Aspiring Author

      Hey! I guess I agree that there is really no one-size-fits-all solution to habits and habit-formation, but maybe there is after all!

  • aafan

    I am enjoying your latest book about habits. I have been a psychiatrist for 30 years. Every day I see people who struggle with self-monitoring and self-management, finding a daily structure and support for reaching their goals, and curbing self-defeating behavior. Sometimes my mind does drift to the anatomy and neurochemistry of the things you are describing, lol! But it is nice that you are not focusing on frontal lobes and basal ganglia. I think your ideas have broader relevance and applications, for some people who struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, PTSD, and mood disorders, or even with remembering to take their meds every day. They don’t need to get into the weeds about serotonin. They need skills to develop some basic habits, to build a foundation, so they can free their minds to focus on decisions that need flexibility and judgment. (I am not finished with the book yet, so maybe that is coming up!) Thanks for a great read. That pairing idea is terrific.

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific – great to hear that you think it’s helpful for your patients.

  • Simon Hoy

    Great article, this approach seem to me to imply radical self acceptance. As a drummer, I have heard about the 12 hours a day players and the 10,000 hours theory was a staple of tutors at my music college. I have found over the years that this approach in itself is pretty meaningless and potentially harmful. After some 20 odd years of drumming, I am beginning to find a more holistic approach to playing and practising that borrows ideas from things like Alexander Technique and Chi Gong. So in short my habits have evolved and what worked for me 5 or 6 years ago simply doesn’t anymore. Ultimately you have to become your own boss with these things and realise that mastery is always relative and subjective. That said, if there could be one universal habit helpful to all then perhaps focus/ presence of mind.

  • mom2luke

    This blog post is a great summary of your happiness/habits work, Gretchen. Tho I love your work, I still think it IS very hard to CHANGE your habits, but I think your work (and podcasts especially since they feature Elizabeth’s struggles with very different habit-forming tendencies) has allowed me to ACCEPT and be HAPPIER with the habits I do have and to try some of your ideas/strategies to improve (like making a concious effort to tackle FIRST THING in the morning a task I’ve been procrastinating).

    Knowing I am a Questioner allows me to understand that I just will never be an Upholder (a “rare and extreme” type) and I should quit trying to be something I am not as it only makes me feel bad about myself. ( Those “Just Do It” mandates just don’t work for me.) Now I’m more cognizant of WHY I’m indulging in a bad habit. That alone helps. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to do better tommorrow, but it does mean today I’m “choosing to moderate,” rather than “abstain.” Both are legitimate strategies. When I’m serious about wanting to do something, I now have more tools/ideas on how to make it happen.

    For example the “Power of Convenience” is something I think works for all of us:

    -Exercise. It really is the best medicine. I keep the tennis/bathing suits/running shoes in the car so my special needs son and I can fit in exercise anytime we’re out of the house if we want to, spur of the moment.

    -Healthy eatting. I try not to buy sweets and if people give them to us, I hide them in a bag on a high shelf we can’t see. (Then we forget about them until dessert time instead of becoming obsessed with them and eatting them between meals AS WELL AS finding something else sweet to eat after dinner for dessert.)

    -One size doesn’t fit all: thanks so much to Elizabeth and Eliza ! I LOVE having their insights (via podcasts) contrasting to your Upholder ways since I am far more like they are than like you. Like Elizabeth, I’m “jealous” that you are an Upholder, but, knowing these differences are inate, I am no longer beating myself up that I just can’t adopt new habits like an Upholder/Abstainer could.

    -Parenting my teen. Eliza has helped me accept my daughter’s Rebel tendencies. (The study habits! The hidden candywrappers! The SAT stress! The Social Media pressure! The NetFlixing) It’s harder being a teen today than it was when I was growing up. I can’t expect her to behave as I did. Her world is different and full of so many more TV shows (we had 3 channels only) and so many more distractions. That requires so much self-will just to get through each day ignoring those temptations.

    Thank you for all the insights into how good and bad habits (mine and those of my family) contribute to happiness. Keep them coming!

    • gretchenrubin

      So great to hear that it resonates with you!

  • Ann

    Hi Gretchen, I just listened to your podcast about the Rebel tendency, and although I thought I am an obliger, I am rethinking that. I do a lot for others, especially my daughter who has a major illness, but I struggled for maybe a year….maybe more..before i could help her without out first saying no. I had been thinking about the obliger tendency to do things for others (outside expectations) but thought that, really, it’s that I will do something easily if someone else is there with me. I hate to do the dishes, but if someone else starts them, I easily share the job. But if someone else says ‘you should do the dishes, it’s the right thing to do’, I just can’t get myself to do them. Then when you and Elizabeth talked about the Rebel tendency, I could feel that–identity?–of resistance, maybe especially to myself, in new way. I DO want to do the dishes, I just can’t do them. I think this perspective is really going to help me. Thanks.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great to hear it strikes a chord with you.

  • LOVE the idea of habits making our lives better. And it’s easier than we think to form them. As an organizer it’s something I work on with my clients a lot but still need to address personally. I love these concepts and reminders. Thank you!

  • Such a great post – now I’m in my thrities, it’s my knowledge of myself that helps when forming habits and setting goals.

  • hawthornem70@gmail.com

    The best thing to do with making changes and or understanding your habits is one thing at a time. If you overwhelm yourself with trying to understand your habits or change of any of them, then you will not move forward. Each one of us has unique qualities that can make us successful, there is no single person better than the next.
    Learning how to cultivate your special talent is the key.

  • Lee Mccarthy

    Marvellous thank you.How wonderful to read this at this time of year when everyone is nearly burnt out trying to make their resolutions stick on day 8! I love it thank you. womenshq.com.au Lee

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