Gretchen Rubin

With Habits, “It Helps to Adopt Simple Rules.”

With Habits, “It Helps to Adopt Simple Rules.”

Habits interview: Cass Sunstein.

I’m hard at work on Better Than Before, my book about habits, which focuses on how to change a habit – whatever you want your particular habit to be.  (To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

As part of my research, I've read innumerable books and papers on various topics related to habits. One of my favorite sources is the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

I started my career in law, so I knew a lot about American legal scholar Cass Sunstein and his work. Nudge, however, isn't about law. It's about how people and institutions can "nudge" behavior, to help people achieve better health, better finances, and better outcomes in many different areas, by shaping default choices that lead people to make better habits (often, without even realizing it), and by making better choices easier. "Choice architecture" takes advantage of the Strategy of Convenience: the simple facts that many people choose the default decision presented to them, rather than take the trouble to choose for themselves, and that when things are easier, we more likely to do them, and when things are harder, we're less likely to do them (for good and for ill).

Sunstein and Thaler offer many practical suggestions about how to put this approach into practice; people are still free to make their own decisions, but they've been "nudged" in the right direction.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on the subject of habits. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Cass: Probably this: It helps to adopt simple rules, which are easy to follow. For example: Exercise on specific days every week.  I play squash (an obscure racquet sport), and it's good to have a plan to play with a specific person at a specific time every Monday, and another every Wednesday, and another every Friday. In fact it's often best to adopt a practice that operates by default, meaning that unless you take active steps to alter the practice, you're on the path you want. Example: Pay bills (credit cards, mortgage, etc.) automatically and electronically, so that you're in the habit (so to speak) even if you aren't thinking about bills at all. Habitual behavior isn't something that we have to work at -- though it might take a lot of work to make certain behavior habitual, or to turn something that is a struggle into part of life's furniture.

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

That one's tastes can change a lot, and that you often like some things more, or dislike them less, when you keep doing them. When I was 18 years old, I didn't appreciate the extent to which new habits and new tastes can develop over time -- and how much control people ultimately have over their own habits.

Here's something that I also didn't know: In thinking about habits, it's useful to focus on two things: the costs of decisions and the costs of errors. That sounds like econo-speak, and it is, but when we have a good habit, the decision costs are low (because it's a habit!) and the error costs are also low (because it's a good habit, e.g., a healthy one). Bad habits tend to have low decision costs (because the relevant behavior is habitual) but high error costs (because they make your life worse). When we lack a habit, the decision costs are often pretty high, because we have to keep thinking about what to do. That can be a strong argument in favor of developing a habit; it simplifies life. True, the decision cost-error cost framework will hardly appeal to everyone, but I think it's useful.

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

I try to find at least two hours to write every weekday morning, between 9 am and noon -- that is pretty helpful for productivity.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

After I left government, I developed a new habit, which is that I generally don't do interviews. I am breaking that habit right now! [Gretchen: Which I very much appreciate.]

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Actually I haven't.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Depends on what they are! Some of them are helpful, of course, but others less so. One question is whether it is possible to object to habits as such. I think it is; some of them can be stultifying even if they are pretty good (or great). If you have a habit of eating only healthy foods, your life might be a bit boring. Another question is whether it is possible to endorse habits as such. I think that it is, because they simplify life, and make it more easily navigable.

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

Dick Thaler, my coauthor on Nudge (and several academic papers). I've learned a lot from him about the importance of default rules. He's also responsible for the term "snudge" (meaning, self-nudge), which is admittedly awful. (But it's a lot better, and more useful, than "selfie" -- wouldn't you agree?) If you keep your refrigerator pretty empty, and don't fill it with unhealthy things, you're snudging. In fact good lives are full of good snudges (but I am now considering whether to develop a new habit, which is not to use that particular word).

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