“For good or bad, habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. Research suggests that about 40% of our behavior is repeated almost daily, and mostly in the same context.”
The art of change is a continual commitment, day after day, to small actions that lead to big developments. When these daily commitments become habits, we free up time, energy and perhaps money as they become entrenched in our everyday. It is making those habits stick by tailoring them to your natural tendencies that is the hot topic of Better than Before, by Gretchen Rubin. The inherent challenge Rubin leaves the reader with is simply, to know yourself. The strategies that you will need to apply in times of habit formation will be wholly dependent on your tendency, which you can identify by taking an online quiz.
Know Yourself (and your Tendency)
"We can build our habits only on the foundation of our own nature."
What works for one person, may not work for the next. We all know this to be true, but Gretchen Rubin makes it strikingly obvious that habit formation must be highly individualized in order to ensure long-term sustainability. She notes that our individual approaches can be linked to the type of accountability we require and the sliding scale of value placed on expectations of self and others. Rubin has dubbed these The Four Tendencies:
Upholders: “They want to know what’s expected of them, and meet those expectations” (18). These folks have little trouble forming habits as they are highly accountable to their own wants and needs, as well as those around them. They are dependable and actionable, and struggle most when expectations are unclear.
Questioners: “Questioners question all expectations and they respond to an expectation only if they conclude that it makes sense. They’re motivated by reason, logic and fairness” (19). When it comes to habit formation, Questioners are very keyed into the cause and effect of the desired outcome. Does it align with their personal values and the ultimate goal? If so, sign them up. If not, they want no part of a foggy promise.
Obligers: “They’re motivated by external accountability; they wake up and think ‘what must I do today?’ Because Obligers excel at meeting external demands and deadlines, and go to great lengths to meet their responsibilities” (21). Obligers excel in habit formation that is directly tied to the expectations of others, whether it is the physical presence of meeting a running buddy, or the theoretical ‘eyes’ enacted upon announcing a goal and owing a outcome, the debt of completion weighs heavy on these folks and can serve as strong motivation.
Rebels: “They choose to act from a sense of choice, of freedom. Rebels wake up and think, ‘What do I want to do today?’” (23). The very idea of a habit is simply too restrictive and rigid for a Rebel, they often lack any desire for predictability or forecasted behaviors. Rubin does explain that Rebels can adapt to habit-like behavior if we remove the daily requirement and add the choice of participation, day after day. From ‘I have to do this everyday’, to ‘I can choose to do this today.’
By knowing your tendency, you can best approach your goals and resolutions in a way that plays to your strengths and protects against your inherent challenges.
Applying Strategies for Habit Success
"I [We] should tailor my habits to the fundamentals aspects of my [our] nature that aren’t going to change."
Now that you know your tendency, Rubin explores strategies of habit formation and maintenance that can be applied in three distinct ways: getting started, building and maintaining.
Getting Started: Rubin identifies three unique strategies that could support the initial process of habit formation:
- First Steps: Just starting can be harder than continuing, and starting small can be the trick. Additionally, starting small can help in building momentum—propelling us into a long-standing habit.
- Clean Slate: This strategy is all about capitalizing on a fresh start; whether it’s a new job, a new city, a new gym or a new romantic partner. Using the clean slate as an opportunity to start over, do better and be better than before.
- Lightning Bolt: While rare, there are occasions that strike with invaluable motivation for change or a desire for more. Drawing on this lightning bolt of motivation can be just the start you need to work towards your new goals.
Building: These Pillars of Habits are invaluable foundational strategies to be applied based on your natural tendencies and unique circumstances:
- Monitoring: Having a benchmark and tracking success, with real facts can be crucial to finding success in your habit formation. Don’t rely on your own, qualitative assessment.
- Foundation: When starting your habit journey, get back to basics and zone in on the key areas that are important to you and where you’d like to see improvements. Rubin highlights her journey with habits related to sleeping, moving, eating and simplicity.
- Scheduling: If it isn’t on the calendar it doesn’t exist… and doesn’t get done. Actively inputting key behavior triggers to sparking commitment day after day.
- Accountability: Just having it on the calendar doesn’t guarantee that the tasks will be completed. But for some tendencies, namely Obligers, setting up accountability measures can be invaluable.
Maintaining: As momentum builds, forecasting potential pitfalls and roadblocks can be the difference between success and failure. Rubin has identified eight strategies for managing ongoing desire, ease and excuses:
- Abstaining: Are you an all or nothing type of person, or a square of chocolate a day kind of person? For some, abstaining from certain behaviors or consumption habits can be just what is needed to ensure long term adherence and for others moderation works like a charm. Identifying which applies best to you can help in maintaining your desired habit.
- Convenience vs. Inconvenience: Making adhering to desired habits easy by removing barriers and roadblocks or playing to your laziest self can be just what you need to overcome the next hurdle. On the flip side, when seeking to break a bad habit making the behaviors inconvenient or placing barriers can be key to creating space and distance.
- Safeguards: Anticipating temptation and creating ‘if-then’ rules can protect your most important habits in high-risk situations.
- Loop-hole Spotting: Otherwise known as situational excuses, it is best to identify and shut down these loop holes to avoid slipping too far away from the desired behavior.
- Distraction: “When we distract ourselves, we purposefully redirect our thoughts, and by doing so, we change our experience” (184).
- Rewards vs. Treats: While rewards can be dangerous for habit formation, treats can be used for every day enhancement, not earned rather enjoyed ‘just because’.
- Pairing: Combining a less desirable activity with one that you want or enjoy can be the trick to reframing the activity and ensuring both get done.
Honing and Demanding Clarity
"Two kinds of clarity support habit formation: clarity of values and clarity of action. The clearer I am about what I value, and what action I expect from myself- not what other people value, or expect from me- the more likely I am to stick to my habits."
It is strikingly obvious that the key here is being true to yourself, your tendencies and your own, very personal desires. When it comes to setting goals, shaping habits, and maintaining momentum the more aligned it is with your most honest self-actualization, the easier it will be to adhere to. On the flip side, if you are looking to kick a habit that is closely aligned with your identity, the roadblocks and barriers will be plentiful. Know yourself, and proceed accordingly, when we do so we “make it easy to do right, and hard to go wrong” (152).
Better than Before is an invaluable tool in deepening your understanding of the relationship between your natural tendencies and desired habits. Gretchen Rubin is thorough in her exploration of habit-forming strategies and has conveniently labeled and paired them in a way that makes them highly applicable. Where it is dense in content, reprieve can be sought in the various case studies and engaging storytelling. Being mindful of the process of habit formation can be just what you need to capture success in your next set of goals.