Tom Rath & Gretchen Rubin Talk About Habits That Create Well-Being

Portrait of Tom Rath

I got to know Tom Rath because we’re both members of the Silicon Guild, though of course, I’d known Tom’s work for years. He has written five bestsellers, including his blockbuster StrengthsFinder 2.0. I read his fascinating book, Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Change, with particular interest when I was working on my habit-change book, Better Than Before, because it has a lot of relevance for habits.

Tom has a terrific new book that just hit the shelves: Are You Fully Charged? The Three Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life. (Spoiler alert: the three keys are meaning, interactions, and energy.)

This really caught my attention, because I’ve been thinking a lot about energy lately. My father has always emphasized the idea of “Energy!” and I remember about that often.

I couldn’t wait to ask Tom about his views and experiences with habits. It turned out that he had some questions for me, so here, we interview each other.

Habits that Create Well-being

A conversation with Tom Rath and Gretchen Rubin —  the first in a series of brief conversations between best-selling authors and thought leaders, brought to you by Silicon Guild.

Tom Rath: As I read Better Than Before, what struck me were all the strategies about building better default choices into your daily routine, so we are less dependent on our limited supply of willpower. What are the best willpower-conserving strategies you have uncovered?

Gretchen Rubin: You’re absolutely correct: one of the easiest ways to conserve willpower is to make a behavior into a habit. When something is a habit, we don’t have to use -control or make decisions; we’re on automatic pilot. I don’t use willpower to get up at 6:00 or to post to my blog or to wear my seatbelt. Those are habits, so they happen without any conscious effort on my part.

Some people say to me, “I want to learn to go through my day making healthy choices.” And I answer, “No, you don’t!” Every choice is an opportunity to make the wrong choice. Every choice is a struggle that requires willpower. Choose once, then stop choosing. Make important behaviors into habits, and save your willpower for complex, urgent, or novel situations.

Then the question becomes: Okay, how do we make or break a habit?

The (annoying, I know!) answer is: It depends. Working on Better Than Before taught me one thing: there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution for habit change; we all have to think about what works for us.

I’ve identified 21 Strategies that we can use to make and break our habits. Some Strategies work well for some people, but don’t work at all for others (e.g., Strategies of Scheduling, Accountability, and Abstaining). Some Strategies are available to us only at certain times (e.g., Strategy of the Clean Slate and the Lightning Bolt).

We’re all different, so different habits will suit us. For instance, we often hear, “Do that important habit first thing in the morning.” That’s a great idea—if you’re a morning person. But a night person, who feels most creative and energetic later in the day, might be better off scheduling that habit for a different time. It will take less willpower to form and maintain the habit if it suits that particular person’s nature.

Start small. Give yourself a cheat day. Do it for 30 days. These are all strategies that work for some people, some of the time. But they don’t work for everyone or all the time, and there are many more strategies that also work. What works depends on us.

Tom Rath: I have been on a bit of a crusade over the last few years to get people moving around more throughout the day, instead of sitting in chairs for 5-10 hours. In your latest book, you talk about how much measurement helps, given how easy it is to quantify how many steps we take each day. But what would you recommend for people who are resistant to tracking their daily activity?

Gretchen Rubin: It’s true; some people resist tracking. Here are some other movement-promoting habits I follow:

I run down the stairs, instead of walking – it gives a big energy boost, just to get my feet off the ground.

I make a point of getting up every 45 minutes or so, to walk around.

I stand up and pace whenever I’m on the phone. This is highly effective.

I wish I could have a treadmill desk, but as a New-York-City-dweller, my office is too small. So I did the next best thing: I gave my sister Elizabeth Craft a treadmill desk! She’s a TV writer in L.A., and she walks between 5-7 miles each day, while working. (I have a new podcast with my sister, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, and you can listen to her describe her treadmill desk or see a photo here.

Getting a dog is a great way to get more exercise. A big commitment, however — obviously.

As my “Four Tendencies” framework explains, “Obligers” have trouble keeping an inner expectation (such as exercising) without external accountability, so for them, the key is to create external accountability. That might mean working with a trainer, exercising with a friend, taking a class, or joining an accountability group. (If you want to know your “Tendency,” whether you’re an “Upholder,” “Questioner,” “Obliger,” or “Rebel,” take this quiz.)

Obviously, all these solutions won’t work for everyone. The key is to think about what could work for you.

Tom Rath: Of all the tweaks you have made to your own daily routine over the years, which one has created the most net well-being for you?

Gretchen Rubin: Tough question. I have lots of habits that I love. But if I had to pick a single one, I think it’s the change I made to my eating habits.

More than three years ago, while on vacation, I read Gary Taubes’s book Why We Get Fat. I was utterly convinced by Taubes’s arguments about nutrition, and overnight, I changed almost everything about the way I eat. (This is an example of the habit-change “Strategy of the Lightning Bolt.”)

Now I’ve become one of those low-carb people. I don’t eat sugar, flour, rice, grains, starchy vegetables. I almost never eat fruit. And I love it.

In the past, I struggled with my tremendous sweet tooth, and my love of snacking, I felt hungry all the time, and I fussed a lot about what I ate. Now that I eat low carb, all that noise is gone. I’m much less hungry, I find food very satisfying but not distracting, and I’ve seen great health benefits.

Not everyone would want to give up carbs the way I have. But I’ve found that for many people, it’s easier to resist a strong temptation (whether that’s chocolate, wine, or by giving it up altogether rather than trying to indulge in moderation. Abstaining sounds harder, but for some people – who are “Abstainers,” like me – it’s easier. That’s the “Strategy of Abstaining.” By contrast, “Moderators” do better when they indulge a little bit, or sometimes.

There’s no right way or wrong way, just what works for a particular person. I’ve discovered that I’m such a hard-core Abstainer that abstaining from most carbs works for me.

Another very recent habit change: I started a podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, with my sister Elizabeth Craft. We talk about how to live happier, healthier, more productive lives. We draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, pop culture—and our own experiences! We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much.

Having a weekly podcast meant a big change in my habits. I need to come up with ideas, brainstorm with my sister, record the episodes, post information on my site, and spread the word about the podcast. I’ve been using many of my 21 Strategies of habit change, to help me keep up with this new activity.


Gretchen Rubin: As you were writing the new book — Are You Fully Charged? — and considering the question of what aspects of life are most important to allow us to feel “fully charged,” what surprised you most?

Tom Rath: The realization that there are much more important (and practical) questions about well-being than what I had focused on in the past. Most of the research I have conducted and written about on well-being was based on asking people broad questions, usually about their satisfaction over a lifetime. But in the last few years, new research has upended my thinking on this topic. I am now convinced that daily well-being (what researchers call “daily experience”) is far more important than how we evaluate our lives when reflecting on years and decades.

The findings from this work suggest you do not need to live in a wealthy country or be rich to experience high daily well-being. In fact, four of the top five countries in the world on these measures of daily experience are in the bottom half of the list of the world’s richest countries. What was even more interesting to me is that, when you look at the central elements of daily well-being, these are far more practical changes people can make on a daily basis.

Gretchen Rubin: I imagine that many readers will find themselves nodding vigorously in agreement with your persuasive arguments in Are You Fully Charged?– but nevertheless will find it hard to change their behavior. They know you’re right, but somehow can’t follow through. What are your suggestions for people like that?

Tom Rath: This is a great question and gets at the heart of what I’m always trying to do, which is narrow down from all of the amazing research at our disposal today to basic shortcuts we can keep in mind. The title of this most recent book, Are You Fully Charged?– was an attempt to give people a very simple way to think about whether their daily actions are making a positive contribution or not. If someone reads a book of mine, remembers one thing, or changes a single behavior, that makes it worth the effort for me.

My first suggestion is to simply think about your actions throughout the day and ask whether they are adding a positive charge for yourself or others. The three specific elements I found that lead to engagement at work and daily well-being: meaning, interactions, and energy. It starts with doing a little meaningful work that makes a difference for another person in the moment). Then having far more positive than negative interactions (at least 80% positive) throughout the day. The third element is having the physical energy you need to be your best tomorrow, which starts with eating right, moving more, and sleeping better. When we ask people questions about this, for example, just 11% of people say they had a lot of physical energy yesterday. We can do much better.

Gretchen Rubin: As you’ve talked to people about the ideas in Are You Fully Charged?, what seem to be the ideas that are most exciting and helpful to readers? Is it what you expected – or not?

Tom Rath: The part that most readers are unaware of is all of the great research on how we can use money to create well-being. I mentioned before that you don’t need to be rich in order to have consistently great days. But you do need enough money to cover basic needs like food, shelter, and safety in order to avoid worrying and having stress on a daily basis. However, once you can meet your basic needs and have some discretionary financial resources, the way you spend money matters a lot.

On average, those of us who live in the United States do a poor job of estimating how our spending can improve well-being. We spend far too much on material things like clothing, cars, and housing. In contrast, we don’t take enough vacation time or spend on experiences with other people. A lot of the research that I talk about in this new book explains why we get so much more out of experiences, from going out to dinner to athletic events to more elaborate vacations, compared with spending on material goods where the effect wears off almost immediately.

The other piece that resonates with readers are the sections about how practical it can be to create meaning. Many people have a concept of meaning, mission, or purpose as some grand thing that descends from the heavens. As a result of this thinking, meaning often seems too overwhelming to pursue today.

But if you go back to some of the earliest thinking on this topic or look at the latest research, meaningful work is something that occurs on a moment-by-moment basis. The big challenge for a lot of us is to be more conscious of that fact, so we can see how small actions eventually improve the lives of another human being. If you do something today that improves another person’s well-being, this creates an upward spiral and continues to grow when you are gone.



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