Are You Unnecessarily Severe with Yourself and Your Habits?

“All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.

— Samuel Johnson, as quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

I often think about this remark by Samuel Johnson.

Because I’ve been so focused on habits over the past few years, during the writing of Better Than Before, people often talk to me about the habits they want to change.

And although I have so many strategies and ideas that I’ve identified to help people master their habits, to my surprise, I frequently find myself making the case against changing a habit.

I’ve noticed that people often say they want to change a habit because “I really should ___” or “this person in my life tells me I have to ___.”

And I always say, “Well, maybe you would be better off if you changed the habit — but maybe not. Do you care if you change that habit?” And often, they don’t really care.

For instance, a friend said, “I really love coffee, but I know I should stop drinking it.”

“Why?” I pressed. “Does it keep you up at night? Does it make your stomach hurt?”

“No, it doesn’t affect me.”

I couldn’t resist launching into a defense of coffee. “You need some treats, and as treats go, coffee is great. Even if you buy very expensive coffee, it’s not that expensive, in absolute terms. It boosts your energy and focus. If you don’t add anything crazy, it doesn’t have any sugar, carbs, fat, or calories, but it does have antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and even fiber, weird as that sounds. Caffeine is fine if you’re drinking it in the human range. Plus, there’s pleasant ritual connected with it—you can go out for coffee with a friend.”

“But I should at least cut back.”

“But why?” I pressed. “Enjoy it! A habit isn’t bad unless it causes some kind of problem.”

Along the same lines, when I was in L.A. a few days ago, I did an event where I was interviewed by brilliant journalist Lisa Napoli. She asked how she could change her habit of dumping her clothes in the bathtub.

I asked, “Does it bother you to have those clothes in the bathtub?”

She paused, and said, “Well, actually, no.”

It’s not a conventional thing to do, true, but why  try to squash a habit if it’s not a problem?

Most of us have some habits that we’d like to change that would actually make us happier, healthier, or more productive. So I argue that we should do first things first, and turn our energy toward the habits that really matter.

How about you? Have you ever thought, “I should really change this habit,” and then realized, “Nah, I don’t really care.”

I have the nervous habit of twisting my hair, and for a long time, I told myself that I should stop — but several years ago I decided, “No, I’m not going to worry about it. I’m fine with my hair-twisting.” (Though I do try not to do it when it might bug someone else — in particular, when I’m around my mother. Fortunately, it doesn’t bother my husband.)

All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle. We should be as easy on ourselves as we can be. Agree, disagree?


A Report from Day Two of My Book Tour

Hello from Day Two of my book tour for Better Than Before.  Today I’m in San Diego, which is sunny and gorgeous — especially delightful given that it’s snowing in New York City. Happy spring!

So far, so good. My plane took off on time, I’ve given my official “book talk” for the first time, and done some fun events.

Also, with my sister Elizabeth, I recorded two episodes of our new podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. Usually we can’t see each other when we’re recording, so it was nice to be in same room while we were doing it. We’re having so much fun with this podcast! I’m spending the weekend with her, and on Sunday — if all goes well — we’re going to record a Very Special Episode. Stay tuned, I can’t wait.

The great thing about the book tour is that, at last, Better Than Before is out in the world — though I’m still not quite used to seeing it in people’s hand or in bookstores (oh, how I love airport bookstores). I’ve been thinking about habits for so long, and I love getting the chance to talk about the subject with other people.

There’s nothing like being on a book tour to put a writer in full sales mode, so, to pique your interest in Better Than Before, here are some fun facts about the book:

Working title: Before and After. Which title do you like better? Wait, don’t tell me. Done is done!

Word count: Now 83,000 words — at one point, I had a complete draft that was 140,000. And that draft had already been cut way down. Sheesh. And to cut those thousands of words, I didn’t eliminate any ideas, just…verbiage. Also examples. I love examples, but you don’t need ten examples to illustrate one point.

My favorite strategy to write about: The Strategy of Loopholes, because loopholes are so funny. I love collecting loopholes.

My most ardent habits convert: My father.

The strategy that needs its own book: I intend to write a short field guide to the Four Tendencies, because people seem so eager to hear more details about the Four Tendencies than I could include in Better Than Before. So I plan to work on that soon.

The thing I keep forgetting to tell people: That if you want to take a quiz to identify your Tendency — whether you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel — you can take the quiz here. More than 106,000 people have taken it!

The thing I didn’t include in the book, but wish I had: After the book was finished, I came up with my Checklist for Habit Change.  I think many people will find the checkist useful, so I wish I’d thought of it in time to include it. Maybe I can add it to the paperback. You can download it here.

The habit that people most often mention, as a specific habit that boosts their happiness: Making the bed. (I even make my bed in a hotel room, on the morning I check out. The photo is a picture of my bed from this morning, before I checked out.)

Author most often quoted in Better Than Before. Samuel Johnson.

A few nice things people have told me, after reading the book: One person told me that reading my book, and talking to me, had done more to improve her life than a year of therapy.

Many Obligers have told me that, now that they understand that outer accountability is what they need in order to meet expectations, they’ve been able to make enormous strides in changing their habits.

I’ve heard from many Abstainers who are much happier now that they realize that the Strategy of Abstaining works for them — and also from a lot of married people, who say, “Now I understand why we’ve been fighting all these years! Abstainer married to a Moderator.”

Thanks as always, dear readers, for your support and enthusiasm. It’s so fun to meet readers when I’m traveling around — I hope I get to meet many of you over the next few weeks.

Podcast #4: One-Sentence Journals, Marathoners vs. Sprinters, & Parking-Lot Snacks

My sister Elizabeth Craft and I are having so much fun doing our new podcast together,  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Did I mention that my book about habits, Better Than Before, was published yesterday? Oh right, maybe I did. Well, because I’m going on a book tour, Elizabeth and I hurried to record the first seven episodes before I left town.

As part of my tour, though, I’ll be in L.A., so she and I will get to record a few episodes in the same room — which will be great. It’s much easier for conversation to flow when you can see the other person.

Also, if we can manage to pull it off, we’re going to record a Very Special Episode. Stay tuned for that!

People who’ve read Better Than Before may be especially curious to hear the voice of my sister the sage. She’s a major character in the book; one of my favorite habit-changing undertakings was when I gave her the transformative birthday present. (You can listen to her talk about that gift, here.)

Here’s what we discuss in today’s episode:

Try This at Home: Keep a one-sentence journal. Elizabeth mentions her own one-sentence journal, with her “serial killer handwriting.” Voila! If you’d like to buy your own Happiness Project One-Sentence Journal, go here. ElizabethOneSentenceJournal

Know Yourself Better: Are you a Marathoner or a Sprinter, when working?

Listener Question: “I’ve heard it takes 30 days to form a habit, good or bad. Is this true?” Good question! If you want read a longer discussion than we can include in the podcast, check out Better Than Before.

Elizabeth’s Demerit: Potato chips in the parking lot. The book she mentions is The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year.

Gretchen’s Gold Star: “The things that go wrong often make the best memories.”

Bonus: You get to hear a blooper.

To listen to this episode, just zip to the bottom of this post and hit the red “play” button.

Or if you’re reading this post by email, click here to view online, to listen to the podcast from this post.

Want to know what to expect from other episodes of the podcast, when you listen toHappier with Gretchen Rubin?” We talk about how to build happier habits into everyday life, as we draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, lessons from pop culture—and our own experiences (and mistakes).

Each week, we give  a “Try This at Home” suggestion, for some easy habit you can try, as part of your ordinary routine, to boost your happiness—something like setting an alarm to signal your bedtime, or using the one-minute rule, to help yourself stay on top of small nagging tasks.

We also suggest questions to help you “Know Yourself Better”—like “Whom do you envy?” and “Are you a Marathoner or a Sprinter in your work style?”—and explore “Happiness Stumbling Blocks,” those small, seemingly insignificant parts of daily life that drag us down—everything from the problem of the Evil Donut-Bringer to the fact that working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

We “Grill the Guest,” consider “Listener Questions,” and finally, we get even more personal, and each of us either gives ourselves a “Demerit” for a mistake we made that week, that affected our happiness, or awards a “Gold Star” to someone or something that deserves recognition.

We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much!

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE: If you’re like me (until recently) you’re intrigued by podcasts, but you don’t know how to listen or subscribe. It’s very easy, really. Really! Instructions here.

Or for an amusing short how-to video made by Ira Glass of This American Life, click here.

If you want to listen to more than one episode, and to have it all in a handier way, on your phone or tablet, it’s better to subscribe. Really, it’s easy.

Tell us what you think! Drop us a line at @gretchenrubin, @elizabethcraft, Facebook,, or call 774-277-9336. Or just add your comment to this post.

Again, be sure to subscribe and listen and subscribe on iTunes so you never miss an episode. And if you enjoyed it, please tell your friends and give us a rating or review. Listeners really respect the views of other listeners, so your response helps people find good material. (Not sure how to review? Instructions here; scroll to the bottom.)

Happy listening! Or I should say, HAPPIER listening!


So Tomorrow Is a Big Day. At Least, For Me

Well, tomorrow is the big day.  After years of work, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives will hit the shelves. Note my excellent book-jacket-matching cell-phone case!

Today, I’m reminding myself of what my father always says: “Enjoy the process.” In fact, “Enjoy the process” is one of the twelve Personal Commandments that I wrote for my happiness project.

If I enjoy the process, then the outcome doesn’t matter as much.  I’ve had my fun.

I certainly enjoyed the process of writing Better Than Before. Habits! I’m more fascinated by this subject now than when I started my research for the book, and I must say that I was already pretty darned obsessed when I started.  It was a joy to write this book — but it was also very difficult.  Of all my subjects — which include big subjects like happiness and Winston Churchill — this was the most demanding, because I did the most original analysis (it seems to me). I came up with new vocabulary, figured out a fresh way to pull together the well-established habit-change strategies, and of course, most difficult was figuring out the Four Tendencies framework.

Now that the book is heading out into the world, it has been great fun to get to talk about the book and about habits. In fact, after some interviews, the reporters have emailed me to tell me that after we spoke, they changed some of their habits! Which I love to hear, of course.

I can’t stand to listen or watch myself — but here are some clips if you’re interested:

Rachel Martin interviewed me for NPR’s Weekend Edition — you can listen here. Turns out Rachel is a Questioner, and if this conversation makes you wonder if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel, take this quiz to find out.

Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie talked with me about how to break bad habits.  You can watch here. A highlight? When Matt ate the M&Ms out of the trash can. Can you tell how surprised I was when he did that? Hilarious! Abstainers, you’re with me, right? Give it up, that’s easier.

I just talked to my husband, and he told me a funny example of my habit principles in action. Each spring break, my husband and I and our two daughters go on a beach vacation with my in-laws — but this year, I’m going on my book tour instead.

“Because you’re not here, everything is happening an hour and half later,” he reported. “We’re all sleeping later and eating later and staying up later.”

Now, when I’m on vacation with them, I don’t consciously order people around. But if I’m there, it’s definitely true that I prefer to do things on the early side. Especially dinner.

So this is a good illustration of how one person — me — affects the eating, sleeping, and waking habits of five other people. That’s the Strategy of Other People.

If you’d like to know more about this strategy, and all the other habit-change strategies that I explore, you can…

–read an excerpt

GretchenReadingAudiobook–listen to an audio-clip — I read the audio-book, and here you can see me recording; the pillow in my lap is intended to muffle “stomach noises.”

–download discussion guides for book groups, or work groups, or spirituality groups

–get a “starter kit” for people forming Better Than Before groups, to work on changing their habits (Obligers, this is one way you can create the crucial external accountability you need)

buy it!

request a free, signed bookplate for yourself, or if you’re giving it as a gift, for other people (U.S. & Canada only, sorry; mailing costs)

–I have something new — a Checklist for Habit Change. It’s a one-pager that lists all 21 habit-change strategies. You identify the habit you want to change, and then fill in the strategies that you could deploy to change it. I think people will find this a really useful tool, but you probably have to read the book first, to understand it.

Thanks for your patience with my self-promotion. In these days of fewer bookstores and shrinking book coverage, we writers have learned to be pretty pushy. I’ve worked so hard on this book; I want to give it a good shot at reaching an audience. Because truly, I think that Better Than Before will help people to succeed in changing their habits, even when they’ve failed before. It’s not that hard…when you know what to do.

Publication is tomorrow, which is a kind of finish line…and I’m reminded of the strange, haunting meditation about finish lines from tennis star Andre Agassi. He’s right; something strange happens around finish lines.

Strange or not, it’s exciting! As always, thank you, my dear readers, for your enthusiasm, your support, and your ideas. I appreciate it so much.

Fill in the Blank: The Greatest of Empires Is the Empire Over ______.

“The greatest of empires, is the empire over one’s self.”
—Publilius Syrus

I love quoting from my favorite works, and I have a giant trove of quotations. (If you love quotations too, you can sign up for my daily email, with a great habits or happiness quotation.)

Because I collect so many quotations, for me, one of the most difficult, and more pleasant, tasks of writing a book  is choosing the epigraph. I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering my favorite candidates. The epigraph must both be a beautiful passage to read in isolation, yet also cast unexpected light on the argument of the book. It’s so hard to choose!

Today’s quotation is what I chose, after much inner debate, to be the epigraph for Better Than Before. It’s  an assertion that I believe with all my heart, and is at the core of the argument of the book, and expressed in haunting language. “The greatest of empires, is the empire over one’s self.”

My argument about habits is: There’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution. It would be great if we could all “Do it first thing in the morning!” “Start small!” “Have a weekly cheat day!” or “Do it for 30 days!” and form a habit, and sometimes those strategies do work — but sometimes they don’t. Why not? What can we do instead, if they don’t work?  We all must understand ourselves, and given what’s true for us, pick the strategies that are right for us — and in this way, become the master of ourselves.

I considered adding a second epigraph to Better Than Before, but many of the people who helped me edit the book thought that this line struck an ominous note. To me, it’s not negative, just the truth. But true, it’s a harsh truth: John Gardner’s observation, “Every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.”

It’s a line with many, many meanings. In the context of habit-formation, I think about it whenever I ponder the Four Tendencies. Because, whether you’re an Upholder like me, or a Rebel, or a Questioner or an Obliger, there’s no evading it: with your habits, every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.

In the end, I decided to leave it out, because I thought the more important quotation, from Publilius Syrus, would be more powerful it it stood alone.

For a while, I also intended to include a quotation by William James (of course; you can’t talk about habits without quoting William James) but in the end decided to leave that single line to stand alone.

If you had to pick an epigraph for your life, or a saying that summed up your personal philosophy, what would you choose?  Many people now put a quotation in the footer of their emails, and I always enjoy seeing what they choose — or what they clip and post on the fridge, or needlepoint onto a pillow, or frame and hang on the wall.