Do You Love Familiarity or Novelty?

I’m working on a book about how to make and break habits, and here’s the most important thing I’ve learned:

If you’re trying to form a habit, the first — and most important — thing to do is to know yourself. What works for you?

Many discussions of habit argue for one particular method — with the unspoken assumption that everyone forms habits in the same way, everyone wants habits equally, and if a strategy works for one person, it will work for everyone. But that’s just not true, as is obvious from everyday life. We have to know ourselves, and suit our habits to our nature.

You might think it would be easy to know yourself, but in fact, it’s very difficult. As novelist John Updike observed, “Surprisingly few clues are ever offered us as to what kind of people we are.”

In my habits book, I explore the many strategies that people can use to change their habits. One is the Strategy of Distinctions, in which I outline different categories of people. Often, getting a glimpse of some aspect of yourself that you’ve never before recognized, or just having a word for it, is surprisingly helpful.

For instance…

Are you an under-buyer or an over-buyer? I’m an under-buyer.

Are you an abstainer or a moderator? I’m an abstainer, 100%. This was a HUGE revelation for me.

Are you a finisher or an opener? I’m a finisher.

Are you more drawn to simplicity or to abundance? I’m more drawn to simplicity.

Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore? I’m a bit of both, but writing about happiness has definitely brought out my Tigger qualities. (I write a lot about the conflict between these two categories in Happier at Home.)

Are you a marathoner or a sprinter? (categories formerly known as “tortoises and hares,” but I changed the terms). I’m a marathoner.

And here’s a new one:  Are you a Familiarity-lover or a Novelty-lover?

Some people love familiarity; some love novelty. I’m definitely in the familiarity camp. I love to re-read my favorite books and to watch movies over and over. I eat the same foods, more or less, every day.  I like returning to places I’ve visited before. Other people thrive on doing new things.

For familiarity-lovers, a habit becomes easier as it becomes familiar. When I felt intimidated by the library when I started law school, I made myself walk through it a few times each day, until I felt comfortable enough to work there. When I started blogging, my unfamiliarity with the mechanics of posting made me dread to attempt it. But I forced myself to post every day, so that the foreign became familiar, and the difficult became automatic.

Novelty-lovers may embrace habits more readily when they seem less…habit-like. A guy told me, “I feel stale when I go to work every day and see the same faces all the time, so once a week, I work in a different satellite office, to shake thing up.”

How about you? Are you more attracted to familiarity or novelty? How does that preference affect your habits?

My habits book comes out March 2015. Do you want to be notified when it goes on sale? Of course you do! Sign up here.

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  • Anne

    Oh, familiarity for sure. I can go to the same restaurant (that I know I like) over and over. I’m not a “always looking for new experiences” gal, though I appreciate that others are not the same! 🙂

  • Christine

    (Check the date on your book release. You posted March, 2014.)

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! fixed!

  • Familiarity 100%! The problem being that if my familiar routine is disrupted, I find it hard to get back on track. This morning I could not buy my normal coffee after my work-out, and this bugged me way more than it should have done!

  • Juliana Ellington

    This latest thing makes such perfect sense. I LOVE habits and routines, but I find them very hard to establish. Maybe it’s the whole dislike of novelty that is creating much of my blocks!
    Thank you!!

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Novelty is a leavening agent that gives me great pleasure. BUT the familiar routines of every day are a huge comfort to me. I have a whole set of morning rituals I do every day and evening rituals for nighttime. I am very ‘ hardwired’ to waken and go to sleep at the same time of day every day of the year, and frankly just turn into a ZOMBIE if I have to stay awake for more than about 45 minutes after my bedtime. NOTHING prevents me from awakening by 0630 at the very very latest. I love my precious little routines. But I do enjoy going somewhere out of town and having different experiences from time to time. Every few weeks is what I mean by time-to-time. I would probably not do well in a cloistered life that never changed, yet that is the ground of my being.

  • Lynn

    Gosh, I have just been facing this issue in my life and it’s been very hard for me. For many years I have held the same job title at several companies. The job had long hours and a lot of unexpected emergencies, which left me very little time for family or other parts of life. When I read your book this last summer it hit me – the days are long but the years are short – I was floored. I had been working so much that the years were passing and my child was growing up mostly without me. I started looking for a new job where the hours are more reasonable. The problem is that the only jobs I felt comfortable applying for were all the same work that I am hoping to leave behind!

    I asked myself, ‘why can’t I rewrite my resume? Why can’t I network with the people who would be happy to help me in this search?” I came up blank, so it was time to ask for help.

    I sat down with a friend and she explained to me that I am TOTALLY happy with the familiar and that I Dread new things. She suggested that I should picture myself doing the different work and even role play doing it so that I would not think of it as new or scary. Once I did that I was finally able to start applying for jobs that are more family friendly.

  • Tanya Hanna

    Novelty. Totally. Annoyingly so. I find routine REALLY, REALLY HARD. And my boredom tolerance is low. It’s the same for my brother who has to have a list up on his wall reminding him what to do in the morning, brush teeth etc . . . because nothing seems to get to the autopilot stage. I love planning routines and planning to create habits as if it’s going to work, but the follow-through is rarely there, almost as if there’s some inner repulsion to doing the same things in the same way. On the other hand, the buzz I get from trying new things is brilliant.

  • Mimi Gregor

    Familiarity, for the win! My morning and evening routines are so firmly established that I AM on auto-pilot. Even right this second! If anything disrupts my routine, like say, my husband decides to get up earlier or someone phones or rings the doorbell and I must deal with it, it just throws a monkey wrench into the smooth running of my morning/evening and I feel a bit out of sorts for quite a while. I have a lot of routines and sub-routines, but I find them comforting. They help my day go more smoothly, so that the things that AREN’T routine can go more smoothly also. I have no problem visiting familiar destinations and eating in familiar restaurants, even though I DO like to try new ones. Since my husband works evenings and I eat most dinners alone, I make a big pot of minestrone most weeks and can happily eat it for dinner daily. (I DO make a mean pot of minestrone, and the vegetables vary according to what looks good at the local produce stand.)

  • Ann

    I like my routines so much, I even begin to resent holidays like Christmas because they take away my normal routines…. I’m working on that one!
    I think this relates to the foundational habits like sleep, diet and exercise that I have put in place for success, which become interrupted for big events. It’s a balancing act, but that’s what keeps life interesting.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Example of the merits of familiarity: I have been idly wishing and wanting for a long time to start a meditation habit. It isn’t happening. “Just sitting” in my room at the opening or close of the day (my private times in my house, which I share with my Mom) just wasn’t happening without immediate drifting into rumination. I can’t plunk a pillow down on the living room floor and put on some suitable meditation music, which might have worked better.
    So, it FINALLY occurred to me that I might go to the ‘tried and true’: I got out my Book of Common Prayer and have begun reading Daily Morning and Evening Prayer (Rite I) in the old-fashioned Anglican manner.
    Oh my goodness, even though my theology has changed a lot, the beauty and resonance of these prayers, canticles, Psalms, and readings reaches right into my soul and calms me down. I am surprised to find that I remember much more than I thought, and I am starting to be able to hear the music in my mind that I once chanted in choir, and delighted to find i recall the words by heart. This is exactly the moment of mental and spiritual resting in something known so deeply it is bone of my bone that I hope to write so strongly in my mind that I cannot lose it.
    Familiarity with something like this ritual can be a kaleidescope in which we are able to reflect on the multifaceted beauty in each day.

    • Lynn

      That sounds wonderful Penelope.
      Those ‘Common Prayers’ sound (maybe) along the lines of ‘the angel of the hour’ on gratefulness.org, I wasn’t raised with it so I am probably completely wrong here…. The chants in them are very calming as is the act of consciously move from one part of the day to the next.

      • Penelope Schmitt

        FYI The Book of Common Prayer is the centuries-old service book for the Anglican (Episcopal) Church. Originally written by Thomas Cranmer during the Reign of Henry the VIII and somewhat (or greatly, depending on which version you use) the same today. The order for Morning and Evening prayer are actually based upon the Benedictine monastic Matins and Vespers services. Ancient, familiar, beautiful, and as endlessly various as the day we bring in our minds with us to be experienced through the lens of the service.

  • Msconduct

    I think this is one area where what I know I like I also know is not always best for me. I love routine, but I also know that I need to try new stuff if I want to lead a full life. (This isn’t me thinking I need novelty because I “should” try new things, it’s knowing that when I do actually do it I enjoy it and feel my life is enriched by it.) And also my life’s passion is travel – the opposite of routine. Because of my love of routine, though, the closer I get to a trip the more I will dread it and wish I wasn’t going. I also know I’m likely to not like the beginning of new things I try. I’ve learned to acknowledge those feelings but not to pay too much attention to them as I will feel very different once I’m under way. I’m trying to cultivate a habit of trying new things on a regular basis, and knowing what roadblocks I’m likely to throw up in my own mind is a great help for that.

    • Anne

      I completely agree and can relate to everything you’ve written. I love to see new places but dread the trip as it approaches. I love new restaurants and food but can get stuck on certain places that are comfortable.

  • Karen

    I loved the quote by Updike about knowing ourselves. Is anyone familiar with the Enneagram? It is a very old nine point system of traits that has just recently been picked up and affirmed by the scientific community. The Enneagram has helped me understand how I operate. So, for example, as a “9” I recognize that I am easily sidetracked and easily overwhelmed. I must use a to-do list, and I have to phrase tasks gently. Rather than “Clean the kitchen” I write “BEGIN to clean the kitchen”. And I need routine to be productive because I am so apt to do what someone else needs and forget what is important for myself.

    • gretchenrubin

      I love the Enneagram.

  • PolarSamovar

    Novelty! I am one of the few people I know who doesn’t like getting into a breakfast rut. This makes it hard to establish routines, though they would make my life easier. *Thinking* about establishing a morning routine around whether I eat first or bathe first makes me feel panicky, claustrophobic, and desperate. I like getting into new musical genres, a new author, a new field of knowledge to learn about. I cook nearly every day, because even though I live alone and leftovers are easy and tasty, I can’t stand to make a big pot of something on Sunday and eat it all week. By Tuesday I never want to see it again.

    At the same time, I don’t change jobs often, and when I moved 2000 miles from an urban area to a rural area, it took a long time to feel at home here. Getting to know someone new is life-enriching, but I love staying close to old friends.

    I think that what I like is controlled novelty – trying new foods/cuisines, yes. Wearing a new color, yes. Walking around a new city, yes. But I also am easily physically derailed if I don’t take careful care of myself – I love new breakfast foods, but if I don’t eat soon after I wake up, or breakfast doesn’t have enough protein and fat and caffeine, or if I haven’t had enough sleep, I feel terrible and can’t enjoy anything. I tend to be rigid about mixing up anything that will affect my physical or mental well-being; long experience has told me that kind of novelty isn’t worth it.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I alternate between two breakfast menus. Seems to work–always have the ingredients at hand, both take very little time to fix, and they contrast enough so that I can look forward to my egg day and my oatmeal day quite happily.

  • Jeanne

    As a spiritual seeker, I find that most of the books I read and classes I take emphasize only change. My hub and I were talking the other day, and he said that his routines and patterns give him great comfort (he is a TOTAL creature of habit). I thought, “Oh NO, the dreaded ‘C’ word!” No, not cancer (or that other one). But comfort. It’s treated as God’s honest truth that if you are comfortable, you’re not growing, and the only place to be always and forever is pushing outside of your “comfort zone.” It’s always push, push, rush, rush, now, now. What’s wrong with a little comfort in this often scary and very complicated world? I believe we’re always growing, even in comfort. We take the same walk every day, but it’s never exactly the same walk. We have a different conversation, see different clouds and animals and neighbors. Comforting routines are considered “boring” by most. Or stagnant. I have been called boring for getting enough sleep! People brag about only needing 4 hours. (I assume they spend those other 4 hours engaged in something uncomfortable.) I’m not a rebel (I’m a questioner) but I WILL progress at my own pace no matter who calls it what. Make new friends, but keep the old…

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I take the “same” walk daily and take a picture of something I see on the walk to post to Facebook. Endless variety.

    • Gillian

      I agree with you on the subject of comfort. I have long thought that the notion that we can grow only by stepping outside our comfort zone to challenge our fears, etc. is vastly over-valued. Doing it occasionally to achieve a specific and desired goal is a good thing but constantly trying to stretch the boundaries is a waste of precious time, focus and effort. There is so much to learn, achieve and experience within our sphere of comfort that it need never be boring. By always seeking the new and novel, we miss the beauty and joy of returning to the familiar and cherished. I do enjoy the occasional new experience or place. It is broadening and adds a little spice to life and is appreciated the more because it is occasional and stands out as being special. Whenever I think that my life must be boring because I seem to do so much less than other people do, I remind myself that I just do different things than they do and I am seldom, if ever, bored – perhaps less bored than they are.

      • Ann

        Very well put. This comment is also applicable to raising well adjusted kids. Studies are starting to show that kids need down time to develop their imaginations and shouldn’t be over-scheduled.

  • Bridget

    I’m so glad this a distinction you are considering! As a 100% novelty lover, I have forced habits on myself (because I DO feel better when I eat and sleep correctly and connect to people I love), but it requires written lists of the habits and constant maintenance. I can lose a “habit” that I’ve done every day for months in a weekend, and if I don’t find my written note that I had that “habit” it won’t come back until, a few months later, I start to wonder why I’m not feeling well or things seem off. I definitely feel like I’m fighting my nature, but I’ve never found better advice for people like me. (I’m grateful to FlyLady for getting me this far!) I hope there’s more examples of non-habit-like habits in your book!

  • chacha1

    I am apparently Gretchen’s less-successful twin. 🙂 For all of the above-listed characteristics, I have the same responses.
    I am a reformed over-buyer, though. It is remarkable what a stint of disemployment can do for a person’s spending habits.

  • Maxi

    I do love familiarity but on a regular basis I need something new to liven life up, usually travel. Then after traveling several days it gets overwhelming and I need familiarity back for balance so my favorite thing at that point is to go to a grocery store or local market.

    That’s the perfect blend of old and new in a foreign country or even a different part of the country. It’s a very familiar process and types of items (even some brands internationally) are the same so I am on comfortable home ground but they’ll also be new foods, sometimes whole new categories of foods I’ve never encountered which indicate hidden aspects about how different peoples live which I find fascinating. This really works for me!

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a great strategy for getting that balance. It is so weirdly fascinating to go to the grocery store in other countries! That could be a whole travel theme.

  • Novelty all the way! My biggest problem in forming habits is that I get bored out of my skull when things get repetitive. I don’t know how to set up my habits in a way that will still give me that feeling of novelty.

  • I’m both (Gemini, what can I say?).

    The thing is, novelties very quickly become routine. New routes to work, a new house, new interests, new places, new friends. Soon, they’re part of your mental landscape, and of your comfort zone.

    Novelty/familiarity is also an age thing. When I was in my 20s, there were lots of novelties; inevitable, really, as I hadn’t lived long enough for them to become routine. As you get older, you get more set in your ways and less attracted to novelty – especially if you’ve been seduced by novelty and subsequently disappointed.

    I’ve discovered that depth is far more rewarding than breadth. I love foreign languages, but have realised that it’s more satisfying to deepen my knowledge of French, for example, than pick up a smattering of German, Spanish or Russian.

    Novelty can be frustrating and exhausting too. What next? What’s round the corner? What am I missing out on? What could I be doing instead of this? How could my life be more fun? What am I going to do today/tomorrow/next week?

    I think you can become so addicted to novelty that you miss out on what’s right in front of you. You can easily find novelty in familiarity too if you probe a little deeper. I’ve just finished a mindfulness course, and it’s amazing how much of my familiar old routines I’d missed, simply by not being in the present moment.

  • cinna

    I like habits most of the time but I have to something new every once in awhile or I start feeling like I’m stuck in a rut

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