–Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
I’ve “known” Leo for years, though I’m not sure we’ve ever actually met in person. Maybe several years ago, very briefly. The crazy world of the internet! I’ve been a big fan of his work for a long time, and now more than ever. (For reasons you’ll be able to guess.)
Naturally, I was eager to pose some habits questions to Leo — a person who is as interested in the subject as I am.
Gretchen: What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?
Leo: The most important thing I’ve developed is a flexible mindset: when a habit inevitably goes off track, I consider this a part of the process, and learn from it, and adapt. My old mindset was one of a fixed plan — I had a plan, and if it didn’t work, I felt like a failure. That’s a good recipe for getting derailed at the slightest bump in the road.
What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Exercise. I used to hate exercise, but now I feel great every time I have a great workout or run. I feel stronger, empowered, vigorous, joyful.
What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
When I was younger, I knew I should form healthy habits, but would always put them off because life seemed to stretch out endlessly ahead of me. I could always eat healthier or exercise or get my finances in order later, because there will be time. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I wasted a lot of time on useless distractions and junk food, and that if I had just done the habits I now love doing, I would be much better off. I wasted years of my life, precious time that I can’t get back. I don’t regret it, but I’m a bit wiser now.
Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
I now know that I can be happy in any moment, if I’m present. So forgetting to be present is the only habit that gets in the way of that happiness. Which, of course, I do all the time!
Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Doing my creative work early, focusing on one thing at a time, being mindful, exercise, eating healthy vegan food, being grateful and compassionate. Not in that order.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Yes, I’ve changed dozens of habits. I started with quitting smoking, and then started running (eventually running several marathons and an ultramarathon), eating healthier, simplifying my life, waking early, eliminating debt, meditating, learning to focus, learning to trust myself.
I learned that focusing on one habit at a time worked best, and doing small habits was important. I would commit to others and ask them to hold me accountable, focus on mindfully enjoying the habit, anticipate disruptions, adapt when things went awry, progress gradually. And lean on others.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I’m an Obliger, for sure! I do really well when other people are expecting me to do something, when I have a commitment with someone else … but I tend to let myself off the hook if it’s “only” a commitment to myself.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Yes, I have lots of things that get in the way, but I’ve learned to take them in stride. Travel disrupts my exercise and eating habits, but I minimize the damage by eating vegan food and not overdoing it. Social gatherings also throw me off, but I just take them as bumps in the road that aren’t that big of a deal if you take the long view. In the long run, unanticipated disruptions are a part of the journey, and aren’t a sign that you’re undisciplined or anything. I try to breathe, smile, and enjoy each step.
To my delight, I saw that this week’s New Yorker cover exactly illustrates a point that I make in Better Than Before.
There, I write about how we make and break habits, and here’s the most important thing I’ve learned: If you’re trying to form a habit, the first — and most important — thing to do is to know yourself.
Many discussions of habit argue for one particular method — with the unspoken assumption that everyone forms habits in the same way, everyone wants habits equally, and if a strategy works for one person, it will work for everyone. But that’s just not true, as is obvious from everyday life. We have to know ourselves, and suit our habits to our nature.
In Better Than Before, I explore the many strategies that people can use to change their habits, and one is the Strategy of Distinctions. This strategy is about understanding yourself, by seeing various distinctions among people.
Often, getting a glimpse of some aspect of yourself that you’ve never before recognized, or just having a word for it, is surprisingly helpful.
The New Yorker cover shows the difference between simplicity lovers and abundance lovers.
Simplicity lovers are attracted by the idea of “less,” of emptiness, bare surfaces and shelves, few choices, a roomy closet. I’m in this camp; I get more pleasure out of shedding things than from acquiring things. I easily feel overwhelmed when there’s too much noise, too much stuff, or too much happening at once.
Abundance lovers are attracted by the idea of “more,” of overflow, of addition, of ampleness, of a full pantry. They always want to have more than enough. They like a bit of bustle, and they enjoy collecting things and having a wide array of choices.
As the cover shows, simplicity lovers and abundance lovers thrive in different environments. For instance, a simplicity lover is likely to work better in an office that’s quiet, with minimal decoration; the abundance lover in an office that’s lively and crammed with visual details.
When changing habits, a simplicity lover may be attracted to elimination and simplification—to saving money by cutting off cable TV or quitting online shopping. An abundance lover may be attracted to addition and variety—to making money by starting a freelance career or learning how to invest.
Other key distinctions within the Strategy of Distinctions include…
Are you an under-buyer or an over-buyer? I’m an under-buyer.
Are you an abstainer or a moderator? I’m an abstainer, 100%. This was a HUGE revelation for me. This distinction is so important that I devote an entire chapter to it.
Are you a finisher or an opener? I’m a finisher.
Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore? I’m a bit of both, but writing about happiness has definitely brought out my Tigger qualities. (I write a lot about the conflict between these two categories in Happier at Home.)
Are you a marathoner or a sprinter? I’m a marathoner.
You might think it would be easy to know yourself, but in fact, it’s very difficult. As novelist John Updike observed, “Surprisingly few clues are ever offered us as to what kind of people we are.”
Do you love simplicity or abundance? Does knowing this distinction help you understand yourself — or others — better? A reader wrote, “I love abundance, and my husband loves simplicity, and now that I know that distinction, I understand our fights much better than I did before.”
I haven’t posted about my Four Tendencies framework in a while, but never fear, I’m still obsessed — and today I have some more questions for you readers.
I developed this framework for my book about habits, Better Than Before. (Which is now available for pre-order. Buy early and often!) I have to say, of everything in the book, I think this section is my greatest intellectual accomplishment. It was very, very challenging to develop this framework, but I really do think it sheds a helpful light on human nature.
So what are the Four Tendencies?
It’s very important to know ourselves, but self-knowledge is challenging. If you want to know yourself, it’s key to know where you fit into the Four Tendencies, that describe how people tend to respond to expectations:
-outer expectations (a deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart), and
-inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).
Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.
In a nutshell:
- Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
- Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense, so they make everything an inner expectation (my husband is a Questioner)
- Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves
- Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
I gave a talk at LinkedIn about the Rubin Character Index, so if you’d like to see me discuss each category in a video, you can watch: for Upholders, watch here; Questioners, here; Rebels, here, and Obligers, here.
In the next week or so, I’ll be coming out with a fancy new quiz you can use to help figure out your Tendency. In the meantime, you can look here for a simpler version.
I continue to try to understand this framework better, and to understand how people work. So here are my questions for you, which you can answer if that seems like a fun thing to do:
Whatever your Tendency, do you wish you belonged in a different Tendency? Why, and which one? I’m an Upholder, and although I see the downsides, I wouldn’t want to switch to a different Tendency.
Relatedly, is there a Tendency you envy? To my surprise, someone told me, “People most often envy Upholders and Rebels.” Agree? I would’ve though people would most envy Questioners.
Can you think of any great examples of the Tendencies from literature, TV, movies? E.g., Hermione is an Upholder; Andre Agassi is an Obliger. I especially need examples of Questioners.
Obligers: do you sometimes think, “When someone expects something of me, I do it, and I often have trouble meeting my expectations for myself. I feel puzzled and resentful when other people don’t do the same. They don’t give priority to the expectations of others, but are just as concerned about meeting their expectations for themselves. They might put something that benefits them (going running) ahead of an expectation of someone else (a kid needs help with homework). To me that seems callous/self-centered/enviable.”
Upholders: do you find it difficult to impose expectations on other people? It’s odd — you’d think that Upholders would feel the most at ease at doing this, but at least in myself, I really don’t like to enforce expectations. In fact, I want people to impose expectations on themselves, and I become frustrated when they don’t/can’t.
Rebels: you so value your own freedom and ability to do things your own way. Do you feel comfortable telling other people what to do?
Rebels: how do you feel about being put in the Rebel category? Does it bother you to be put into a particular slot? Do you think the description suits you? Do you like being identified as a “Rebel”?
Not sure, or Questioners: Do you recognize other Tendencies better than you recognize the Questioner Tendency?
Thanks, readers, for all your comments on this topic over the last several months. It has really deepened my understanding of how people think and act.
“For dealing with the blessings which come to us from outside we need a firm foundation based on reason and education; without this foundation, people keep on seeking these blessings and heaping them up but can never satisfy the insatiable appetites of their souls.”
–Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Republic