Can a Vine Behave like an Olive Tree? No.

A vine cannot behave olively, nor an olive tree vinely—it is impossible, inconceivable. No more can a human being wholly efface his native disposition.

–Epictetus, Discourses, 2.20.18

This is what has struck me most in my study of habits. We can’t change our fundamental nature. We have to form the habits that work for us.

An Owl shouldn’t bother trying to form the habit of getting up early to exercise. A Moderator shouldn’t bother trying to form the habit of giving up sugar. A Sprinter shouldn’t both trying to form the habit of doing a little work each day, well before a deadline.

Those are great habits for Larks, Abstainers, and Marathoners. But there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all-solution for habits. Unfortunately.

An olive tree can’t act like a vine, and an Obliger won’t form habits the way that an Upholder will.

When we know ourselves, and figure out how to shape our habits to suit our native disposition–that’s when we succeed.

How about you? Have you ever found it much easier to form a habit when you changed your approach to be better suited to your nature? Your love (or dislike) of competition? Your love (or dislike) of spare decoration? Your love (or dislike) of bold changes?

You can pre-order my book about habit change, Better Than Before, here–but don’t worry, that’s not the actual cover of the book. Pre-orders really help a book, so if you’re inclined to buy it, I really appreciate a pre-order.

Video: For Habits, the Strategy of Abstaining, or, How To Be Free From French Fries.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.

Today, I’m talking about the Strategy of Abstaining. This is one of my favorite strategies — but then, I’m a 100%, total Abstainer.

Abstainers find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately. If they try to be moderate, they exhaust themselves debating, “Today, tomorrow?” “Does this time ‘count’?” “Don’t I deserve this?” etc. Once they’ve decided something is off-limits, they don’t think about it anymore.

Moderators, by contrast, feel trapped and rebellious if they try to abstain. They do better when they indulge sometimes, or a little bit.


If you’re having trouble figuring out your category, take this quiz.

Abstaining may sound rigid and hard, but for Abstainers, it’s easier than trying to be moderate

I have to tell this story about my sister the sage again, because I love it so much.

When I was identifying the concepts of “abstainers” and “moderators,” my sister was my model moderator. For instance, her weakness is French fries, and she told me that she couldn’t give up French fries, but she would eat only half an order, share an order with her husband, not order fries every time she went out to dinner, etc. Those are moderator strategies.

But to my astonishment, a few months ago, she told me, “You know what? I’m actually an abstainer. It turns out that it’s just easier to give something up altogether. “

But I know something else about my sister. While I find it easy to say “No,” “Stop,” or “Never” to myself, my sister is a person–and many people are like this–who does much better with positive resolutions. (I posted about this difference in Are you a “yes” resolver or a “no” resolver?) So I asked her how she was handling that issue. Because, after all, abstaining means saying “no.”

My sister is so brilliant with words.

She said to me, “You’re right, I can’t tell myself a negative. I have to make this a positive thing. So I tell myself, “Now I’m free from French fries.”

Free from French fries!

That’s exactly how abstaining feels to me. I’m free from decision-making, free from internal debate, free from guilt or anxiety.  That Halloween candy, that bread basket, that cookie plate at the meeting…they don’t tempt or distract me. It’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: I give myself limits to give myself freedom.

But the Strategy of Abstaining doesn’t work for Moderators.

Know yourself! It would be so nice if a magic, one-size-fits-all solution existed for habits. But there’s no single correct approach. To change your habits, you have to figure out yourself.

How about you? Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator? How has that influenced how you’ve tackled your habits?

Want To Break that Good Habit, Just This Once? How To Avoid Backsliding.

I’m working on Better Than Before, a book about how we can change our habits. The most fascinating subject ever.

In it, one thorny question that I tackle is: How can we make an exception to a good habit, without disrupting that good habit altogether? After all, sometimes we do want to break a habit—to take advantage of a rare opportunity, say, or to celebrate.

A very effective safeguard for that situation is the planned exception, which protects us against impulsive decisions. We’re adults, we make the rules for ourselves, and we can mindfully choose to make an exception to a usual habit by planning that exception in advance.

When we plan an exception we feel in control of ourselves — we’re not breaking a habit willy-nilly, or invoking one of the 10 categories of loopholes at the last minute, to give ourselves excuses. And we feel happier when we feel in control of ourselves and our actions.

Exceptions work best when they’re limited, or when they have a built-in cutoff point. This morning, a friend told me how he’d used a planned exception mindfully to depart from his usual habit of eating only low-carb foods.

Many people tell themselves, “I’m on vacation, I should treat myself, I deserve it, I can’t resist these pies, you only live once!” And they completely abandon their good eating habits. My friend wanted to indulge, but in a limited way.

“When I was staying in a cabin in Montana, I ate almost all my meals at a restaurant that was famous for its pies,” he told me. “People came for miles to get these pies. Before I left New York City, I decided what my pie policy would be.”

His pie policy? One slice of pie at every meal. He told me his thinking, and I was struck by how many good ideas he combined.

1. “If I’m in Montana, then I will eat this way.” “If-then” planning is very effective; by deciding in advance how to behave, we make it easy when the time comes. Also, an exception that exists only in Montana is self-limiting. My friend loves pie, but he’s not going to make a special trip to Montana just for a piece of pie.

2. “I get one slice with every meal, but only one slice.” Yes, he had pie with breakfast, too (pumpkin-tofu or peach pie), and at every meal, but only one slice. Bright-line rules — that is, clearly defined rules or standards that eliminate any need for interpretation or decision-making — are very helpful.

3. “I didn’t take a pie back to the cabin; I could only eat it at the restaurant.” In previous years, he’d sometimes skip the pie at a meal, and take a pie (or two) home to the cabin, and eat it throughout the day. This kind of eating prevents monitoring — which is part of why it’s appealing — but we do much better when we monitor ourselves. 1 slice/meal = very easy math. The Strategy of Monitoring is one of the most important habit strategies; we do better with just about everything when we monitor.

4. “I broke my low-carb rule to eat pie–but only pie.” After the first few days, my friend said, he started to think, “Boy, a little ice cream would be great, and there’s a great ice cream place near here.” But he knows himself, and he knew that if he went from pie to ice cream, then soon he’d be eating bread and pasta, too. So he had pie and only pie.

5. “I knew I’d enjoy my vacation more if I had the pie.” For good habits, it’s very important not to allow ourselves to feel deprived. When we feel deprived, we start saying things like “I deserve this,” “I need this,” and “I’ve earned this,” and then we treat ourselves — often very unhealthfully. By figuring out how to keep himself from feeling deprived, he didn’t get in that “life isn’t fair” mode, he gave himself a treat, and he really enjoyed something special about his vacation.

Note: my friend is an Abstainer, and this approach worked for him. I’ve found that many Abstainers are mostly Abstainers; yes, they do better when they abstain than when they try to indulge in moderation, but every once in a while, they indulge.

By contrast, I’m a total Abstainer. You wouldn’t believe what I’m abstaining from these days. (For a hint, read here and here.) But to my surprise, I’ve come to realize that I’m a very unusual type, a real extreme personality. Which, by the way, was a surprise to no one but me.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: If we want ourselves to keep going, sometimes we need to allow ourselves to stop. Have you found ways to keep your good habits, mostly, and yet take breaks occasionally?

If you want to hear when Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.

“If You’re Always Future-Oriented, It Tends To Come At the Expense of the Present Moment.”

Habits interview with Chris Guillebeau.

I’ve known Chris for years. I don’t remember how we met, originally, but I’m a big fan of all his bestselling books and last year, I spoke at his terrific World Domination Summit in Portland.

I’m very excited for him, because his latest book is coming out tomorrow — I love the book, and I love the title so much, I wish I’d thought to use it first. The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life.

It’s not easy to dream big, and it’s not easy to turn that dream into reality. Chris provides the essential blueprint for people for whom the happiness of pursuit — such as Chris’s crazy successful quest to visit every country in the world! — is a key part of the pursuit of happiness. If you’ve always wanted a quest, this is the book for you.

I wanted to ask Chris about how he thinks about habits. For him, I know, it’s very important to feel free and to make the choices that are right for him. Some people (e.g. Rebels) think that habits are inconsistent with a life of freedom and choice — so I was curious to hear Chris’s perspective.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Chris: Every day I have coffee and pastry of some kind around 3 pm. I say “around” 3 pm because it doesn’t need to be 3 pm on the dot—I’m not that obsessive. But there’s a window: 2:45 is acceptable, and so is 3:30. 4 pm is pushing it.  Once in a while I have a crazy afternoon with a two-hour long meeting or something right during the window, and we get into 4:30 coffee-and-pastry time. That creates a minor crisis, but yet somehow I overcome.

This habit has made me happy for a dozen years and more than one-hundred countries. (I should make some sort of coffee-and-pastry global index.)   

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Many people who pursue quests and other long-term goals are very future-oriented. They’re always working toward something and seeking to make incremental progress. They are “strivers,” essentially. Overall, I believe this is a healthy way of life. People who have hope and look to the future tend to be healthier, have better financial habits, and so on.

But—and this is no small problem—some of these habits can indeed interfere with happiness. If you’re always future-oriented, it tends to come at the expense of appreciating the present moment, something that we know has a lot to do with happiness. Therefore, their challenge is to continue focusing on the long-term goal, while making sure to occasionally look up and appreciate their current surroundings.

I wrote this answer in relation to the people I studied for The Happiness of Pursuit, but it could just as easily apply to me.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

My most important habits relate to creativity and productivity. Every day I focus on outcomes and deliverables instead of time-based commitments. I try to avoid impromptu phone calls, because I find them to be disruptive to creative work. I work with a to-do list in front of me. Sometimes I go off and do something else, but I find the list to be grounding and helpful when I get off track, which is often.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I believe we’ve had this conversation in real life! About two years ago, you said I was a mix of questioner and rebel, with a bit more emphasis on the questioner side of things. (I’d question that assumption, but that would be playing to type.) [Yes, I think Chris is a Questioner with Rebel leanings.]

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace them. Routine rules my life, perhaps sometimes to a fault.  For someone who’s been to every country in the world, I’m really more of a soft adventurer. Every day I do mostly the same things, from working off the to-do list to having my coffee at set times. I’ve forged a life around these and other habits. I always want to improve, of course, but I have no plans of answering the phone more often or quitting the pastry.

Why the Issues that We Ignore Often Come Back to Plague Us.

Novelist Paul Auster wrote a memoir, Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure.

He writes, “By the end of 1977, I was feeling trapped, desperate to find a solution. I had spent my whole life avoiding the subject of money, and now, suddenly, I could think of nothing else.”

This reminded me of a thought-provoking interview I did with personal finance expert Zac Bissonnette a few years ago. I’ve never forgotten a story he told:

A few years ago – when I was in high school — my dad was going through a ton of financial problems that culminated in him living at a friend’s house.

My dad was born in 1948 and is a classic hippie; He lived in a tree-house in a state park for a while in the early 1970s, he’s a carpenter, and he is probably the coolest, most loving person I know.

But he’s never really given much thought to money. He always said that it wasn’t important to him and that it didn’t matter. So I was sitting on the couch with him at his friend’s house watching the Red Sox…and I asked him, just off the top of my head: “Who do you think thinks about money more? You or Bill Gates?”

And I’ll never forget his response: “Without a doubt, me. I spent my whole life thinking I was above money and that it didn’t matter and now it dominates my life and is all I think about. It’s like money is exacting its cruel revenge on me.”

I interviewed you [meaning me, Gretchen] once for a piece and you told me that “Money affects happiness primarily in the negative” and that’s exactly right. When it comes to happiness, the less money matters to you, the more careful you need to be with it. If you don’t like thinking about money and don’t pay enough attention to it, it will one day become all you think about.

I think this is true about money, and I think it’s true about habits. All too often, the areas of our lives that we decide to ignore can become the areas that dominate our lives, later. And not in a good way.

Perhaps this happens most with health.

Habits allow us to put a behavior on automatic, so we don’t have to think about it or make decisions related to it anymore. In this way, habits can free us from the things we don’t want to think about.

For instance, if you hate to think about money, you might decide to follow the habit of never carrying credit cards, so that you can’t impulsively buy things that you can’t really afford.

My sister told me, “Now I’m free from French fries.” Not everyone would use habits the way she did, to get free from French fries — the Strategy of Abstaining doesn’t work for everyone — but habits can bring freedom.

This idea, of how habits can be confining but how we can use them to feel free, is a big theme in my forthcoming book about habit formation, Better Than Before. If you want to hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.