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?

Want to Make 2016 a Happier Year? Here’s How I Did It, Month by Month.

If you’re looking for ways to make 2016 a happier, healthier, more productive year, may I self-promotingly suggest my book, The Happiness Project?

The first day of the new year always feels so fresh and full of promise to me — but at the same time, it’s very discouraging to look back over the year that’s just ended, and realize that I’d never accomplished an important, happiness-boosting change that I’d hoped to make.

This feeling is one of the major reasons that I undertook my happiness project.

I remember so clearly the moment when I had the idea to do it. I was on the 79th Street cross-town bus, and I looked out the window and thought, “What do I want from life anyway? I want to be happy.” I realized, though, that I didn’t spend any time thinking about whether I was happy, or how I could be happier. “I should have a happiness project!” I decided.

I ran to the library the next day to get a big stack of books about happiness—and I had no notion of how much that single moment’s thought was going to shape my life, and bring me so much happiness.

I divided the year into twelve categories — each month, I worked on a different area of my life where I wanted to make myself happier.  Areas such as energy, marriage, play, mindfulness, money, parenthood, work, and friendship. I identified a handful of specific, manageable resolutions to try, to see if I could boost my happiness. And I often found that I really could.

What I found out about myself, and I think this is true for a lot of people, is that there was a lot of low-hanging fruit — steps that didn’t take much time, energy, or money yet could significantly boost my happiness. And why not be as happy as we can be?

And I can’t resist adding: The Happiness Project was on the New York Times‘s bestseller list for more than two years, including at #1, has sold more than two million copies, and been publishing in more than thirty languages. Yowza! As a writer, it’s thrilling to be able to connect with so many people. Thanks, readers, for all your enthusiasm and support.

You may think, “Why should I read about your happiness project? Gretchen and I may be nothing alike.” Very true. But it seems to be the case that reading about someone else’s very specific experience is often the best way to get ourselves thinking about what would work for us. Somehow, we identify and learn more from a personal story than from the most high-minded philosophical treatise or major study covering large populations.

For ideas about how to start your own happiness project, look here. It’s never too late to start — it’s always the right time to begin.

Intrigued? You can…

 

I also can’t resist mentioning a crazy highlight — “The Happiness Project ” was an answer on the game show Jeopardy! How nuts is that.

How about you? Have you done a “happiness project” of your own, and if so, what form did it take? HAPPY 2016!

 

Know the Feeling? “Old Rubbish! Old Letters, Old Clothes, Old Objects That One Does Not Want to Throw Away.”

“Oh! Old rubbish! Old letters, old clothes, old objects that one does not want to throw away. How well nature has understood that, every year, she must change her leaves, her flowers, her fruit and her vegetables, and make manure out of the mementos of her year!”

–Jules Renard, Journal

As we approach the new year, this quotation keeps floating through my mind.

And that passage reminded me of this one:

“I still feel nervous when I throw away a piece of bread. But in Nature nothing can be lost, nothing wasted, nothing thrown away, there is no such thing as rubbish.”

–John Stewart Collis, The Worm Forgives the Plough

Unrelated sidenote, because I can’t resist: It really bothers me that John Stewart Collis misquotes William Blake. In Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell,” the line is “The cut worm forgives the plough.”

There’s a very great difference in the meaning of those sentences — that word “cut” matters.

But I digress! Back to thoughts of time, change, renewal, and nature. Happy 2016.

Better Than Before by Gretchen RubinAnd remember, today is the LAST DAY to get my BONUS offer for FREE. It’s an email series called “21 Days, 21 Strategies for Habit Change.” Each day, for 21 days, I send you ideas about how to change your habits (or how to help someone else change habits).  It’s free for people who order the paperback of Better Than Before. Info here. And yes, if you bought the hardback version, or the audio or e-book, you’re eligible too. Just email me. You can see me talk about Better Than Before in this short video. If you’ve ever wanted to change a habit, all is revealed in my book.

Podcast 45: Home for the Holidays, Kansas City Edition! We Record at Winstead’s.

It’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Update: It’s the Kansas City edition! We begin our recording from a table at Winstead’s, the beloved Kansas City diner that’s our family’s favorite place to eat. Plus we feature some special guests.

Elizabeth and I had so much fun recording this — it’s always extra-fun when we’re together, and it was great to be in our hometown.

Try This at Home: “Identify your special places.” The restaurant Winstead’s is definitely one of our special family places.

PodcastElizabethEatingBurgerWinsteadsI quote from Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion: “There are, for example,  privileged places, qualitatively different from all others — a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in youth. Even for the most frankly nonreligious man, all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the ‘holy places’ of his private universe.”

Know Yourself Better: Is there a New Year’s resolution that you’ve made over and over?

Update! We talked to my sixteen-year-old daughter Eliza in Episode 30, and here, she gives us an update. Also, she announces that she has started a podcast of her own. Check out Eliza Starting at Sixteen. She does the whole thing herself — recording, editing, everything. ElizaStartingat16logo Which astounds me.

Mindy’s Gold Star: One of Elizabeth’s best friends, Mindy, gives a gold star to her father, who told her, “Always pay attention to what you have, instead of focusing on what you don’t have.”

podcastEEEandGinclosetEleanor’s Gold Star: My ten-year-old daughter gave a gold star to our family, for getting a dog. We didn’t think we were a dog family – but we did it! And we’re so happy.

Note: it’s hard to see, but I’m wearing a t-shirt that Elizabeth gave me a few Christmases ago — a bluebird wearing a Santa hat.

Special plea: I’m trying to think of a word to fill in the blank: “The Four _____ Tendencies.” What word could I add, that would help convey the nature of the framework to people who haven’t heard of it? Please send your ideas!

Remember, if you live in the Bay area:  Elizabeth and I are doing our first live recording of the podcast! January 21, Brava Theater, we hope to see you. Info and tickets here.  We’ll have two outstanding guests, Nir Eyal and Jake Knapp. Plus Elizabeth and I have planned special little treats, and you also get a copy of Better Than Before with your ticket.

 WinsteadsSignOutdoors

As always, thanks to our terrific sponsors

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

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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.