How Does a Rebel Change Habits? One Rebel’s Clever Solutions.

In my (bestselling) book Better Than Before, I set forth my “Four Tendencies” framework, which divides people into one of four categories, depending on how they respond to expectations. To take the quiz to find out your Tendency, go here. To read generally about the Four Tendencies, go here.

Since Better Than Before came out last month, I’ve talked a lot about the Four Tendencies. It’s definitely one of the things that readers are finding most interesting.

I love it when people tell me about their ingenious ways of working with their Tendency, in order to change their habits. For instance, I was impressed with an Obliger who figured out how to build a system of external accountability for getting up at 6:00 a.m. How would you do that? I wondered. Her solution was brilliant: on HootSuite, she’s teed up an embarrassing Facebook post that will go live at 6:15 a.m., unless she gets up in time to disable it. Problem solved!

I got an email from a Rebel, Lucia, who came up with some terrific ways to work with her Rebel Tendency to shape her habits.

Mastering habits is a particular challenge for Rebels, because of their general opposition to anything that feels like a chain or a pre-commitment. In fact, I’ve been struck by how many Rebels have contacted me, to ask about how to shape their habits — and so I asked Lucia if I could post her solutions, because other Rebels might benefit.

Lucia writes:

I had such a lightning bolt moment when I read Better than Before and identified my tendency. I’m a Rebel, and while I take distinct pride in this tendency, it is quite a difficult one to work with when trying to form habits!

The areas where I’ve struggled most have been, like a lot of people, food and exercise. I managed to adopt an exercise routine last year when I began weight lifting and boxing with my male friends. After reading your book, I realized why I have been able to maintain this strategy for so long — women typically don’t lift weights like men (bench presses, etc) and women typically don’t box. Subconsciously, the act of exercising in a way atypical of my gender has been satisfying my inner Rebel, and so I have able to stick to it. I take pride in saying, “I can leg press around 300 lbs.” Most people say, “Wow, that’s a lot for a girl,” and I think to myself, Yes, that’s right, ‘for a girl!’ I am unique and my exercise is unique!  [Here, she’s using the Strategy of Other People — Rebels delight in doing something in their own way, with an approach that’s different from others.]

Additionally, I realized why I have not been able to conquer my food habits in the same way. I read (and loved) Gary Taubes [who wrote the book Why We Get Fat, which I write about in Better Than Before] around the same time I started lifting and boxing. Since then, I have gone through cycles of climbing onto and falling off of the low carb bandwagon. Now, thanks to Better than Before, I know why! I was trying to force myself with science, and rebels listen to no one. Not even Gary Taubes (Step 1: Identify the problem). I had to think of ways to make eating healthy feel like a freedom and a choice, rather than an obligation. [This is using the Strategies of Identity and Clarity: the Rebel decides, “This is what I want, this is who I am.”] This was quite difficult, because eating healthy is such a highly encouraged habit in society. Whenever I hear people talk about “feeding their temples” and “nurturing their bodies” I grow resentful and annoyed.  So I came up with the following strategies to make eating right feel like my own special, contrarian decision:

1) Restrict quality, not quantity. Allowing myself to eat as much as I want takes the edge off of the restrictions that come with the low carb lifestyle. Whenever I get the urge to snack mindlessly, I tell myself to eat as much as I want of the low carb food in my fridge. And suddenly, the burning desire goes away.

2) Relish in cooking, and cooking things that are unique. Not many people cook all their meals, and I take pride in the fact that I do (how many people, especially 23-year-olds, make beef bourguignon?). [This is another way of using the Strategy of Other People.]

3) Relish in using foods that are demonized by misinformed nutritional science. Bacon. Steak. Butter. [This is yet another smart use of the Strategy of Other People.]

I have countless more little tricks (I’m an Abstainer) and strategies (Convenience — I prep all my meals on Sundays so they’re easy to grab). In summary, I cracked it! I have been able to keep the habit for several weeks now and am noticing the difference!

I never would have identified my Rebel tendency and been able to tackle my food habits in this way without you.

My father would like me to add that he has known this about me since I was a four, when I would wrench books out of his hands and insist hotly, “I can read it myself!

This is a great example of the fact that we can master our habits, if we do it in the way that’s right for us. When we take into account our own nature, we can set ourselves up for success.

But when we search for one-size-fits-all solutions, they often just don’t work.

How about you? Have you come up with some ways to work with your Tendency to shape your habits? As I’ve been on my book tour, I’ve loved hearing all the stories.

Do People Ask Themselves the Right Questions?

“People often ask themselves the right questions. Where they fail is in answering the questions they ask themselves, and even there they do not fail by much…But it takes time, it takes humility and a serious reason for searching.”

— William Maxwell, Time Will Darken It

Agree, disagree?

I think it’s often very hard to think searchingly about questions that we know we should face, but don’t want to face.

 

Video: The Tomorrow Loophole. A Very Popular Loophole!

In my new (bestselling) book, Better Than Before, I identify the twenty-one strategies of habit-formation, and one is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the ten categories of loopholes. I love studying loopholes, because they’re so funny. And ingenious! We’re such great advocates for ourselves — in any situation, we can always think of some loophole to invoke.

Well, what is a “loophole?” When we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes, for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation. However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps reject them.

In Better Than Before, I describe all ten categories of loopholes; in this video series. I’ll describe them, one by one.

First of ten loopholes: the Tomorrow Loophole. Boy, this is a favorite. It always works, because, as Little Orphan Annie reminds us, “tomorrow is always a day away.”

 

This loophole depends on “tomorrow logic.” Now doesn’t matter much, because we’re going to follow good habits tomorrow.

It doesn’t matter what I eat now, because I’m starting a diet tomorrow. (Research shows that people who plan to start dieting tomorrow tend to over-eat today.)

 

I’m definitely on track to finish my paper on time, because starting tomorrow, I’m really going to buckle down.

 

I’ll be really frugal in January so it doesn’t matter if I spend too much in December.

 

Today I’m eating whatever I want, but tomorrow I’ll be “good.” (People tend to self-regulate day-by-day, but everything counts.)

How about you? Do you find yourself arguing that it’s okay to do something today, because you’ll act differently tomorrow?

“As Long as the Good Habits Outnumber the Bad Ones, I’m Ahead of the Game.”

Interview: Frank Bruni.

Frank Bruni has written several books and is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. His brand-new book is a bestseller that has received a huge amount of buzz: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. It’s a thought-provoking look at how the college admission system works–and a fresh, reassuring reminder of what really matters in the college experience (as I wrote in my blurb for Frank’s book!).

Also, when I was researching Better Than Before, I read Frank’s fascinating memoir, Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite, because I was reading everything I could find that I thought might touch on the subject of habits.

I knew Frank would have some interesting insights — and he did.

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

Frank: There are three that come to mind, and they may stretch the definition of habit, in that they don’t all occur with daily or weekly or even monthly frequency, but I still think they qualify. And they’re of a piece, as they all relate to family.

My family—my father, my siblings, their spouses, their kids, my partner and I—are all very close, and there have been times in the past when, as a result of that closeness, we took actual time together for granted. But we’ve now ritualized certain things, which is another way of saying that we’ve turned them into habits, so that we’re guaranteed to see one another often, and this brings me enormous happiness. In fact a column I once wrote about it, called “The Gift of Siblings,” was by far the most widely read and shared column I’ve ever written for The Times.

One week every year, all 21 of us pile into a beach house somewhere in the Caribbean or Mexico or such, always in the summer, when it’s off season and less crazily expensive. And every time one of us adults has a milestone birthday—something ending in a zero—we adults do a special weekend away. My 50th, for example, was in late October of last year; we all spent three days in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, which is wine country.

And I no longer let more than a four or five days go by without talking with my father, either in person or on the phone. That wasn’t always so: my mother, who died years ago, was the talker, the one who wanted and even demanded to communicate; Dad was the silent rock, or maybe the plant that needed no watering. Sometimes my conversations with him are just five minutes, but five minutes is everything. Me hearing his voice, he hearing mine: It’s an enormous comfort. I know it won’t last forever—he’s about to turn 80—but thanks to this habit, maybe, just maybe, it will last forever, and more indelibly, in memory.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That habits are like muscles; they get stronger with repeated exercise. You force yourself to do something the first time. You force yourself the second and the third and the fourth. And then, with each subsequent effort, there’s less force required. What was intense effort becomes unthinking reflex or at least something close to that. You just have to trust in that trajectory at the outset. You have to tell yourself at the beginning, when so much will is required, that you’re not always going to need that reserve, that you’re moving toward a destination where everything becomes so much easier.

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

Before I write, I need to read. I’ve seen time and again that I write better in the morning if I’ve read at night; I write better in the mid-afternoon if I paused midday to read. I’m astonished at how long I fought this, because I was sometimes lazy or tired or the reading seemed like procrastination, like a luxury. I finally stopped fighting. This was a habit begging to be developed, and yet still I resisted. It’s funny: habits are like commitments, until they become reflexive. And in the same way you can be a commitment-phobe, you can be a habit-phobe.

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

Yes. I have never lost the enjoyment of eating late at night and especially of indulging in a guilty food pleasure late at night. And though I’ve improved on this front, I still give in to this temptation and tendency—this habit—far too often. But you know what? In my life I’ve quit smoking. I’ve cut way back on drinking. I’ve remained a steady exerciser. So I don’t beat myself up about it. I see habits as a balance sheet. As long as the good ones outnumber the bad, and as long as the list of good ones grows faster than the list of bad ones, I’m ahead of the game. I’m OK.

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

I think I straddle two of these. I’m two-thirds Obliger, one-third upholder. Though I hope—I pray—I have a dollop of rebel in there somewhere. [Note: this combination means that Frank is an Obliger.]

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Yes. The first personal trainer I ever saw. I used to get out of healthy habits by telling myself that if I couldn’t commit to them 100 percent or didn’t execute them perfectly then I might as well stall and wait until such (possibly mythic) moment when I could. He really hammered into me that doing at least some of what you intend to and doing it imperfectly is better than taking a pass on the whole shebang—and that it’s also the beginning of the path toward doing it really well, toward making the habit stick. I think he was and is right about that. I thank him for sharing that perspective with me. For haranguing me, really.

Podcast #9: Treat Yourself, But Resist “YOLO”; the Challenge of Changing Someone Else’s Habit; Why Elizabeth TP’d a Friend’s House.

My sister Elizabeth Craft and I are having a great time doing our new podcast,  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

We’re thrilled–we’ve hit more than 500,000 downloads, in just eight episodes! Thanks for listening! (If you like the podcast, we’re sheepishly asking people to rate and/or review it, if time and inclination permit; that’s very helpful for a new podcast like ours.)

Like last week, this episode was especially fun; I was in Los Angeles for my book tour for my new book Better Than Before, so Elizabeth and I got to record together in the studio. By the way, Elizabeth is taller than I am, but in the photo she towers over me–she’s wearing boots.

And we also had the chance to do our “very special episode.” That’s coming up next week — something different. We had a great time doing it, though I will confess, even though it was Elizabeth’s brilliant idea, I enjoyed it much more than she did, for reasons that will become clear. Stay tuned for that!

Here’s what Elizabeth and I discuss in today’s episode:

First, we read a thoughtful reader email we got about the “evil donut bringer” issue that we talked about in episode 3. That happiness stumbling block sparked a lot of comments. After the episode aired, Elizabeth and I realized that we’d forgotten to mention something, because it’s so obvious to us: Elizabeth is a type 1 diabetic, so for her, those donuts are a serious issue.

Try This at Home: Treat yourself (not to be confused with “treat yourself like a toddler” from episode 7). Bonus: an audio clip from one of my favorite TV shows, Parks and Recreation. To watch the clip of Tom and Donna talking about “Treat Yo’Self 2011,” go here. (No surprise, Tom and Donna have very lavish treats; in real life, treats work better when they’re more modest.)

Happiness Stumbling Block: Avoid the “fake self-actualization loophole.” Not to be confused with a mindful treat. Want to read a list of all ten categories of loopholes?

Listener Question: What’s the best way to strengthen good habits through rewards? Great question. This is a very complicated issue, so if you want to read more, check out Better Than Before, chapter on the “Strategy of Reward.”

Gretchen’s Demerit: As an under-buyer, I delayed buying toothpaste–and then bought just one tube.

Elizabeth’s Gold Star: Elizabeth goes to her high-school reunion–and has a flashback adventure.

As always, thanks to our terrific sponsors! Like Smith and Noble. Go to smithandnoble.com/happier for 20% off window treatments and a free in-home consultation.

And to Travel Zoo. Head to www.travelzoo.com to sign up for a free membership–or download the highly rated Travel Zoo app.

Want to get in touch? Email: podcast@gretchenrubin.com. Twitter: @gretchenrubin and @elizabethcraft. Phone: 774-277-9336 (774 HAPPY 336). Click here for Facebook Page. Or comment right here.

And we would love to hear from you — about whether treating yourself made you happier, whether you fall prey to the “fake-self-actualization loophole,” your questions, and any other comments.

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 aforementioned problem of the Evil Donut-Bringer to the fact that working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

We “Grill the Guest” (well, we plan to — we haven’t had a guest yet), 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!

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

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Happy listening! Or I should say, HAPPIER listening!