Making and Mastering Habits

There are good habits and bad habits. The challenge is to keep your good habits and stop the bad ones.  But that’s easier said than done.

Habits simplify life, allowing you to do things without having to put energy into thinking about them. The brain makes a behavior into a habit whenever possible.

“Because I don’t have to think about the multistep process of putting in my contact lenses, I can think about the logistical problems posed by the radiator leak in my home office,” says Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. The whole point of habits is to assert your self-control and eliminate as much decision making as possible, she adds.

Habits exist to simplify life, freeing up more bandwidth to focus on other things, says Rubin. They allow you to function on auto-pilot. Contrary to popular opinion, the point of habits is to make you happier and more productive, she explains.

But some habits work against you: turning on the television instead of going out for a walk; grabbing a bag of chips every day; smoking; going to bed late, night after night; or constantly checking your smart phone, for example.

Rubin’s interest in habits began when she was trying to help her mother figure out how to exercise more. She talked to people about what kept them from developing healthy habits or breaking bad ones.

She was surprised to learn that when it comes to habits, we are not all the same. She discovered four different tendencies that explain differences in how people deal with habits. Those tendencies are based on how we respond to outer and inner expectations. It’s important to recognize that, when it comes to habits, people are different from you,” says Rubin.

Outer expectations include things like meeting deadlines or following traffic regulations, Rubin explains. Inner expectations include New Year’s resolutions or the desire to nap less and exercise more, for example.

To change your habits successfully you first have to understand yourself and which tendency matches your personality:

  1. Upholders:  Readily meet both outer and inner expectations. They like knowing what is expected of them and enjoy meeting those expectations. They don’t like letting anyone down, including themselves. They wake up in the morning and think, “What’s on the schedule and the to-do list for today?”

  2. Questioners:Resist outer expectations but meets inner expectations. They question all expectations, but use reason, logic and fairness to decide what they’ll do. They wake up in the morning and think, “What needs to get done today, and why?”

  3. Obligers: Meet outer expectations but resist inner expectations. They’re motivated by external accountability and go to great length to meet their responsibilities. They wake up and think, “What must I do today?”

  4. Rebels:  Resist both outer and inner expectations. They choose to act from a sense of having the freedom to choose. They place a high value on authenticity and self-determination, and bring a free spirit to what they do. They wake up in the morning and say, “What do I want to do today?

No tendency is ideal and each has its downside. Knowing your personal tendency, however, can help guide you when you want to create a new habit or eliminate one.  Identifying the tendencies of others – your children if you’re a parent, your customer if you’re a salesperson, your patient if you’re a doctor or a nurse, your student if you’re a teacher, for example --  can help you customize your approach.

The four tendencies help explain why some habits are easier for certain people to tackle than for others. And they point to different solutions. For example, obligers may only succeed in losing 30 pounds if they have to regularly report their weight to someone. A questioner may need to hear the reasons for and against taking a new medication. A rebel may explain her new running habit as an independent way to get exercise. And an upholder might make a to-do list and follow it carefully.

Rubin acknowledges that it’s possible to become too focused on developing habits. “Habits can be deadening, they can speed time, they can have a dark side.”

But the ultimate test of a habit is rather simple, she says. “Is it making you happier? If not, you might want to figure out how to change it.”
 

Learn more:  Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin, Crown Publishers, 2015.

Resources:  Available on Rubin’s website: www.gretchenrubin.com. They include a quiz to help you determine your habit “tendency”; a template for a daily time log; a starter kit for launching a habits group; and a short discussion guide for book groups.