Whenever I start a new book, I think, “This is the most interesting subject of all time. It’s sad, I’ll never enjoy writing another book as much as I enjoy this one.” Every time, I’m convinced. And then I change my mind when I start the next book.
But I really do believe this may be the most fascinating subject ever. It’s the subject of habits. How do we make and break habits—really?
It was my interest in happiness that led me to the subject of habits, and of course, the study of habits is really the study of happiness. 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. When I talk to people about their happiness challenges, they often point to hurdles related to a habit they want to make or break.
My habits research started as part of my ongoing happiness research—I often spend a lot of time studying happiness-related sub-topics, such as pain or the sense of smell—but I just kept pushing deeper and deeper into habit formation. Everything I read was so fascinating! The more I learned, the more I wanted to know—but also the more baffled I became.
I had many questions that seemed quite obvious and pressing to me, but strangely, few of the experts seemed to recognize them. For instance:
- Sometimes, people acquire habits overnight, and sometimes, they drop longtime habits just as abruptly. Why?
- Why do practically all dieters gain the weight back?
- It’s understandable why we have trouble acquiring habits of activities we don’t want to do, but why is it so hard to make ourselves acquire habits that we do want to do?
- Why do some people dread and resist habits, and others follow them eagerly?
- Why are people often so unmoved by consequences? Many graduate students take several years to write their dissertations, and stay ABD (“All But Dissertation”) even though they’re much better off finishing faster. One-third to one-half of U.S. patients don’t take medicine prescribed for a chronic illness.
- Do the same strategies that work for changing simple habits (tooth-flossing) also apply to complex habits (drinking less)?
- Do the same habit-formation strategies apply equally well to everyone?
- Why is it that sometimes, even though we’re very anxious—even desperate—to change a habit, we can’t? A friend told me, “I have a lot of chronic health issues, and I do a lot better when I don’t eat wheat or dairy. But I do. Why? These foods make me feel lousy. But I eat them.”
- Certain situations seem to make it easier to form habits. Why?
- Why do we indulge in a bad habit even when we’re painfully aware that we’re doing it? I’d heard that sequence in my own head: “I shouldn’t. I told myself I wouldn’t. I want to. I have to. Watch me.”
- Most importantly, what are the overarching strategies that allow us to change our habits—or help someone else to change a habit—whether that habit is exercising more, taking medication, doing homework, turning off the TV, or anything else?
I searched unsuccessfully for the answers, until one day a thought hit me: “I should write a book about habits! I’ll figure out the answers to these questions.”
And so I am. I’ve written the entire first draft, in fact.
The book’s title is Better than Before, because that’s what we all want from our healthy habits—to go from before to after.
In Better than Before, I identify the sixteen strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. Some are quite familiar, such as Monitoring, Scheduling, and Convenience. Some took me a lot of effort to identify, such as Thinking, Identity, and Clarity. Some are more complicated than you might assume, such as Rewards and Others. The most fun strategy? Treats. The funniest chapter? The chapter on Safeguards (I include a list of the loopholes we invoke to justify breaking our healthy habits, and they are hilarious.)
Here on the blog, I’ll continue to write generally about happiness, and in particular–as you may have noticed reflected in a few design changes—what I’ve learned about habits. My work on the Four Tendencies came out of my habit research, for example. I was struggling to understand why people seemed so different from each other, when it came to their attitude and aptitude for habit. Why did I find it fairly easy to adopt a new habit, and I love my habits, but other people detest habits? Or they want habits but can’t form them? Or can form them in some situations, but not others? I wanted to solve that riddle—which required me to come up with a framework to capture the variations in human nature. (It took me months to figure this out.)
I identified the abstainer/moderator distinction before I started to focus on habits, but the habits analysis helped me understand the implications of that distinction much better.
I’ve always loved “Before and After” stories, in books, magazines, and TV shows. Whenever I read those words, I’m hooked. The thought of a transformation—any kind of transformation—thrills me. And that’s the promise of habits.
I’m going to add a new feature to this site (I hope): I’d love to feature people’s stories of their own “before and after.” It’s so helpful to hear about other people’s experiences, and how they’ve managed to change their habits for the better.
Habit allows us to go from before to after, to make life easier and better. Habit is notorious—and rightly so—for its ability to direct our actions, even against our will; but by mindfully shaping our habits, we can harness the power of mindlessness as a sweeping force for serenity, energy, and growth. Habits allow us to look back at the end of each day and see that we’ve undertaken the actions that reflect our values—without even having to think about it.
Before and after! It’s what we all crave.
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.