Do you want to make a significant change in your life? Or help someone else to make an important change?
Often, this means changing a habit (get more sleep, quit sugar, exercise regularly, spend more time in nature, put down devices). Habits are like the invisible architecture of daily life -- research suggests that about 40% of our existence is shaped by our habits.
In my book Better Than Before, I identify the 21 strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. (Want to see the whole list? Scroll to the bottom of this post.)
Sometimes people get a bit freaked out that there are so many strategies to choose from—but it’s helpful that so many strategies exist. Because some strategies work very well for some people, and not for others, and some strategies are available to us at some times in our lives, but not at other times.
The most important point? There is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution to changing habits. It turns out that it’s not that hard to change your habits—when you do it in the way that’s right for you.
To change your habits, it’s crucial to identify your Tendency.
Yes, I'm obsessed with my Four Tendencies framework. It explains so much! The world is much less puzzling and frustrating to me now that I understand the Four Tendencies. (Order my book, The Four Tendencies here.)
When you know if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel, you’re better able to set yourself up for success. And if you’re trying to help other people to change their habits, you’re more effective.
Don't know your Tendency? Take the quiz here.
Note: While many strategies work for just about everybody (Convenience, Inconvenience, Foundation, Clean Slate, Lightning Bolt), some strategies that work very well for one Tendency can actually be counter-productive for another.
Strategy of Scheduling (most important for Upholders)
The Strategy of Scheduling is a powerful tool for Upholders. They love to keep a schedule and march through every item. Whatever appears on the calendar—go to the gym on Monday and Thursday, write 1,000 words every day, goof off—gets done. They can make time for every person and activity they value, by putting it on the calendar.
Strategy of Clarity
When Upholders know clearly what's expected, they can generally meet that expectations. Very, very important to remember: Upholders can meet inner expectations, but only when those inner expectations are articulated.
Strategy of Monitoring
Upholders do well with the Strategy of Monitoring, because they tend to love to-do lists with items to check off. Monitoring plays to this inclination: “I intend to walk 10,000 steps today, and look, my monitor says I hit that number.”
Strategy of Pairing
Upholders can make good use of the Strategy of Pairing, because it’s easy for them to enforce the pairing rule on themselves. If an Upholder gets himself to go to the gym by pairing, “I can only shave on a day when I’ve gone to the gym,” he won’t have any trouble holding himself to that pairing.
Note: Because Upholders can take advantage of just about every strategy, anyone who touts a scheme or device that’s meant to help people form good habits will have some success—because Upholders will tend to uphold, no matter what.
Strategy of Clarity (most important for Questioners)
The Strategy of Clarity is crucial for Questioners. They want to know exactly what they’re doing, and why. They won’t meet an expectation if they don’t understand the reason, so they must receive robust answers to their questions. They also must clearly see and trust the authority and expertise of the person asking them to meet that expectation.
Strategy of Monitoring
The Strategy of Monitoring is a good fit for Questioners; Questioners’ love of data means they enjoy self-monitoring. They might wear a device to track the number of steps they take; use an app to track when they take their medication, or chart what time they go to bed.
Strategy of Distinctions
The Strategy of Distinctions may resonate with Questioners, because it emphasizes that a habit should be tweaked very specifically to suit an individual’s character and idiosyncrasies—something that appeals to Questioners, who love customization. They can sometimes be convinced to try something “as an experiment.” “Why don’t you try this, you’ll find out if it works for you, and if not, you can try something else.”
Strategy of Loophole-Spotting
The Strategy of Loophole-Spotting is particularly important for Questioners, because it addresses a common stumbling block for Questioners: the invoking of loopholes to justify breaking a good habit. “I should exercise.” “But it’s too cold outside.” “Do my workout inside.” “But I have too much work and that takes precedence over exercise.”
Strategy of Accountability (most important for Obligers)
All Four Tendencies (even, under certain circumstances, Rebels) find accountability to be useful for developing habits, but Obligers absolutely require structures of external accountability. They need oversight, deadlines, and consequences, and the involvement of accountability partners, such as coaches, accountability groups, trainers, health navigators, friends, or their own children. Obligers often feel a powerful sense of obligation to be good role models. They can often do something for someone else that they can’t do for themselves: “Once my baby was born, I had to quit smoking.”
Strategy of Monitoring
Monitoring supports accountability, and the more Obligers monitor their behavior, the more easily accountability will attach.
Strategy of Other People
Because of the weight imposed by outer expectations, Obligers—and the people around Obligers—must take careful note of the influence of other people, for good or ill.
Strategy of Treats
All of us should use the Strategy of Treats; when we give more to ourselves, we can ask more from ourselves. Because Obligers may fall into Obliger-rebellion when they feel burned out or exploited, it’s important that they get treats as a way to energize themselves. Remember, a treat is different from a reward! Rewards are very, very tricky to use correctly. Stick with treats!
Strategy of Identity (most important for Rebels)
For Rebels, the most effective habit-change strategy is the Strategy of Identity. Because Rebels place great value on being true to themselves, they can embrace a habit if they view it as a way to express their identity.
Strategy of Clarity
The Strategy of Clarity works for Rebels, because it focuses on why a habit might have personal value for them. The more Rebels think about what they want, and why they want it, the more effectively they pursue it.
Strategy of Convenience
Instead of trying to commit to scheduling a habit, Rebels often do habit-behaviors as soon as they feel like it.
Strategy of Other People
The Strategy of Other People is also a useful strategy for Rebels to consider; Rebels love doing things differently from other people. They do an obscure kind of yoga, run barefoot, exercise late at night.
Note: Rebels tend to resist if you ask or tell them to do anything. It’s very important—but challenging—to avoid setting off their spirit of resistance. Also, many of the 21 strategies that work well for other Tendencies typically don’t work for Rebels: for instance, Strategies of Scheduling, Accountability, Monitoring, or Rewards.
From Better Than Before: The 21 Strategies for Habit Change
- The Four Tendencies (subject of my book The Four Tendencies)
- Distinctions (what works for other people may not work for you)
- Scheduling (this is often counter-productive for Rebels)
- Accountability (Obligers! This is YOUR STRATEGY)
- First Steps (be on the look out for opportunities to harness this powerful strategy)
- Clean Slate (this strategy is powerful, but only available at certain times)
- Lightning Bolt (it's frustrating--this is a strategy that happens to you; you can't invoke it)
- Abstaining (this strategy works extremely well for some people, and not at all for others)
- Convenience (this is the most universal strategy)
- Inconvenience (twin of Convenience)
- Loophole-Spotting (this strategy is hilarious to study)
- Reward (beware! this is a very, very tricky strategy to apply effectively)
- Treats (this is definitely the most fun strategy to follow)
- Identity (it took me a long time to realize the power of this strategy)
- Other People (never overlook this strategy)
Have you identified your Tendency? What habit-formation strategies work best for you?
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Find out if you’re an Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or a Rebel.
The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don’t act. Our Tendency shapes every aspect of our behavior, so understanding your Tendency lets us make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress and burnout, and engage more effectively.