How much of your day is routine? How much of it do you have to think about? How do those habits impact your day?

How many of those habits are ones you want to have? Ones you’d be happy if your children picked them up?

I know that I have a few in both categories. For instance, I’d like to stop the habit of eating sweets if they are available. I’d like my kids to unlearn that “dad eats all the cookies”.

The creation of habits, when it’s hard is what Gretchen Rubin is trying to help us with, in her book Better than Before. As she says early in the book, if we change our habits, we change our lives.

Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. We repeat 40 percent of our behavior almost days, so our habits shape our existence, and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives.

The book is broken up into five sections covering five areas of her research into habits.

Section one is about Self-Knowledge and explores two strategies that help us understand ourselves.

Section two covers the Pillars of Habits. Rubin discusses her essential strategies for developing and sustaining habits.

Section three tries to help us start a habit well because starting on the right foot is very important in the formation of the habit we’re trying to build.

Section four explores our shared desire to avoid hard things, and how we pursue what comes to us with little effort.1

Section five strives to understand our drives in light of the fact that we all think we are unique, just like everyone else.

A Comment on Gretchen Rubin’s Style

I always want to like Rubin’s work and not just her books, but her podcast as well. Unfortunately, her style drives me bonkers.

Looking at one of my first notes on the introduction, I’m a few pages into the book and annoyed that is seemingly trying to impress us with all the research she did for the book.

Many times I found myself rolling my eyes as I read the book and she talked about how annoying she was about trying to get others to try habits.

I was continually annoyed by her ‘Rules of Adulthood’ which was seemingly mentioned every five pages.

Finally, she talks about lots of studies that she read, but don’t look for citations in the text because there are none. If you want to find a study, you’ll need to go spelunking for some study that sounds similar because she doesn’t even provide a chapter by chapter break down of her sources at the end of her book. Evidently, we’re supposed to take it on faith that these studies exist, because you’ll be hard-pressed to tie the exact study to an idea in the book.

Despite a style that is apparently not one I mesh with at all. I read the book because Rubin is cited as a leading figure in happiness research. At the end of the book, I was annoyed, but there is a bunch of worth here.

Why do we want to learn to build habits

The creation of habits can be hugely beneficial. They can change our lives. But they aren’t comfortable.

Why in the face of great difficulty do we want to do the hard work to create new habits?

People with better self-control (or self-regulation, self-discipline, or willpower) are happier and healthier. They’re more altruistic; they have stronger relationships and more career success; they manage stress and conflict better; they live longer; they steer clear of bad habits.

Ultimately, creating new habits that we view as conscientious and healthy for our lives will build us into better people. Not just because of the new habit, which is better for us in theory, but because we’re training our ‘habit’ muscle.

In this way, training habits is gritty2. It’s doing something that’s hard because we haven’t done it before. Because sometimes, we’ve done the exact opposite.

Section 1: Self-Knowledge

To shape our habits successfully, we must know ourselves. We can’t presume that if a habit-formation strategy works for one person, it will work just as well for anyone else, because people are very different from each other.

I recently gave a talk at WooConf 2017 about saying no. I’ve talked with my friend Philip about saying no and what many people tell me is that I have a really easy time setting boundaries.

I know from my coaching that many others don’t. We’re different people with different experiences and priorities.

To try and understand the differences people have when it comes to habit formation, Rubin uses a framework she calls The Four Tendencies.

The Four Tendencies are:

  1. Upholders: Respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations.
  2. Questioners: Question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified
  3. Obligers: Respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.
  4. Rebels: Resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

Taking the Four Tendencies and holding them up against ourselves, or in my coaching against my clients, is immensely useful in helping train habits. Knowing what type of Tendency you naturally mesh with, means that you can tailor habit formation to appeal to where you’re strong, and where you’re weak.

The happiest and most successful people are those who have figured out ways to exploit their Tendency to their benefit and, just as important, found ways to counterbalance it’s limitations.

If you’re a rebel, then there is little point in beating yourself up over not conforming to habits (or anything really) in the way an upholder would. It doesn’t matter if you want to be an upholder your natural tendency isn’t in line with that. Work with what you’ve got.

Throughout the first section, she covers a bunch of topics, all around knowing who you are and what the best ways to motivate yourself are.

Interestingly, research suggests that Larks are likely to be happier, healthier, and more satisfied with life than Owls — in part, because the world favours Larks. Owls fall asleep later than Larks do, and because work, school, and young children start early, Owls get less sleep, which makes their lives harder.

Outside of the Four Tendencies, the best takeaway is that we are all different. We may even be a rebel in one area and then a questioner in another area. I’m an upholder when it comes to exercise. I never have trouble getting out the door rain or shine, or snow or heat.

I’m more an obliger with my wife and kids. I have my phone on Do Not Disturb pretty much all the time because I feel compelled to come home and help my wife with…anything if the kids aren’t having a great day.

With clients, I might be a rebel? I set a schedule and stick to it. If a client needs something different, then they should go with someone else.

Ultimately, the section can be summed up with this quote.

There’s no magic formula — not for ourselves, and not for the people around us. We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.

Takeaway: Look at the Four Tendencies and know which one you are. Know yourself, and work with what you have as a starting point.

Section 2: Pillars of Habits

The second section covers the things that need to be done to build good habits. They are Rubin’s pillars.

Having read Switch3, much of the advice follows their ideas of Shape the Path.

Self-measurement brings self-awareness, and self-awareness strengthens our self-control. Something as simple as a roadside speed display to show motorists how fast they’re going helps them slow down.

In the motorist example above, by shaping the path and showing them that they’re speeding, we get slower speeds. With my cookie eating habits, not having cookies in the house would shape the path. I can’t eat what we don’t own.

Rubin also brings up a number of things that make it hard to choose the hard things we want, like lack of sleep.

Lack of sleep negatively affects mood, memory, immune function and pain sensitivity; it makes people more likely to fight with their partners; it contributes to weight gain.

Sleeping poorly means that we’re more likely to hit the default behaviours we may be trying to change. This idea of fatigue also comes up with decisions we’re making at the end of the day. We’re more likely to eat poorly later at night. We can shape the path here by brushing our teeth after dinner. For many people, this is a great cue that they’re done eating for the day.

Another practice people do when they look at starting habits, is to make the goal so big they can’t help but never start, or fail. Rubin calls this raising the bar.

People raise the bar when they consider starting a new habit, and then, from an impulse that’s either enthusiasm or unconscious self-sabotage, they suggest refinements that make the habit prohibitively challenging. A person decides to start exercising, and instead of aiming to walk for twenty minutes a day, he decides to start a routine that rotates between cardio, weights, and balance, four times a week for an hour. The bar is so high that it’s impossible to clear.

Raising the bar is a way to make failure inevitable. This is similar to the avoidance tactic talked about in Reach4. Specifically, what Andy Molinsky refers to as doing a job poorly so we can say it didn’t succeed and then avoid it. In Rubin’s example, we set the bar so high that we can’t help but do the job poorly, and thus we fail.

We never have to do it again.

One of my favourite strategies in Better Than Before is the strategy of scheduling.

The Strategy of Scheduling, of setting a specific, regular time for an activity to recur, is one of the most familiar and powerful strategies of habit formation…

I do the same tasks at the same time almost every day of the week. I read for the first hour of the day four days a week. I write for the next two hours four days a week. Friday is my only exception, and I coach all day on Friday and let myself tack away at email in between calls.

Habits grow strongest and fastest when they’re repeated in predictable ways, and for most of us, putting an activity on the schedule tends to lock us into doing it.

At first, it felt pretty hard to focus for an hour on a single book. I would want to do something else. Then write for two hours without any real break outside of what nature forces upon me. It was crazy.

After a year of this, those three hours always go much faster than I expected. If work allowed, I’d make it an hour of reading and three hours of writing.

The final key you should get in Section two is that you need accountability. Maybe not in all habits5, but in the ones you’re struggling with.

To be effective, the Strategy of Scheduling often must be paired with the essential Strategy of Accountability. It’s not enough to schedule a habit; we must actually follow that habit.

Saying we have a writing time lets us think of ourselves as a writer, but it doesn’t make us one. The process of writing is what does it. The process of getting our writing out into the world for others to see is what makes us a writer.

Many of us need others to hold us accountable to hitting those hard to reach goals. You should have a mastermind group of people that will kick your ass to do hard things.

Section 3: The Best Time to Begin

Many people look to start new habits with the New Year. It seems like a good time to start because things are changing anyway, but most people that start a gym membership in January, are not showing up on February 15th.

That begs the question, how do you start a habit on a good foot? We already know that you shouldn’t set the bar absurdly high, but what else should be considered?

Remember that quote that “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a step”. Sounds good doesn’t it, but according to Chip and Dan Heath in Switch:

But you know what else starts with a single step? An ill-conceived amble that you abandon after a few minutes. – Switch

No ambles all journeys is the goal.

The best time to start a new habit is…now.

Now is an unpopular time to take a first step. Won’t things be easier — for some not-quite-specified reason — in the future?

This is a core question I use with my coaching clients. They say they want to start using a new CRM next month, and I ask “Why not this week?”. It’s far too easy to put off the good behaviour we want into some mythical future.

In that future, we have a six pack and nice hair. Our kids behave all the time.

It’s a fantasy. The best predictor of your future is what you’re doing today. If you’re putting off the good habits you want to form, unless you change something today you’re going to be in the same spot next month.

Still putting off the good behaviours you want. At least you say you want them, but maybe you only want to talk about how good they are.

Rubin talks about a few studies that tell us6 that stopping a hard habit, makes it so much harder to stop. Like that friend you have who ran for a year training for a marathon. They got in the best shape of their life. They ate better and had better hair. Ran the marathon and took two weeks off that have now stretched into two years.

Habits are the behaviors that I want to follow forever, without decisions, without debate, no stopping, no finish lines.

When you set a habit, set a goal and as that goal comes up, set another one. I would not have called myself a runner prior to 2017, but in 2016 I decided that I wanted to run an Ultramarathon.

Yes from a 5km race around 10 years ago to a 50km race through the mountains. I finished it and cut back on running a bit, but I have a new goal. I want to run that same race in under 8 hours. That means I need to cut 90 minutes off my prior time.

Even in this season of less time on my feet, all my training is geared towards my weaknesses for next September.

When you start something, set a hard but achievable goal. Then set a stretch goal. Don’t break the chain.

Section 4: Desire, Ease, and Excuses

How can I deprive myself of something without feeling deprived? When it comes to habits, feeling deprived is a pernicious state. When we feel deprived, we feel entitled to compensate ourselves—often, in ways that undermine our good habits.

Part of this section felt like a repeat of section one, about knowing yourself. Rubin talks about knowing if you are an abstainer or not. When it comes to cookies, I need to be an abstainer. Having one as a treat doesn’t work for me. I eat them if they’re in the house.

Many of the strategies provided in this section also line up with Shape the Path from Switch again. She’s giving you some specific tools to shape your path, but if you’ve read Switch, they’ll seem obvious as methods that can be used to shape your environment for success.

One idea that had me thinking hard about how I motivate my children was the discussion on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.

Despite the greater power of intrinsic motivation, people frequently rely on extrinsic motivation — the easy carrot or stick — to try to prod themselves or others into action. But it turns out that extrinsic motivation undermines intrinsic motivation, so rewards can turn enthusiastic participants into reluctant paid workers, and transform fun into drudge work.

How do we help our children, and those under us in an organization, focus on their intrinsic motivation? How do we avoid a carrot and a stick as we try to build habits in our family and teams?

I don’t think that Rubin does answer this question well. Having just finished Grit, there are certainly a bunch of ideas there about how to build “gritty” people. Angela Duckworth’s ‘Grit’ is all about building people with intrinsic motivation.

Section 5: Unique, Just Like Everyone Else

The final section feels like a bit of a repeat of some of Rubin’s earlier ideas around knowing yourself, but it does provide some good insights into how to know yourself that were missing earlier.

Clarity also helps shine a spotlight on aspects of ourselves that we may wish to conceal. We should pay special attention to any habit that we try to hide. The desire to prevent family or coworkers from acting as witnesses—from seeing what’s on the computer screen or knowing how much time or money we’re spending on a habit—is a clue that in some way, our actions don’t reflect our values.

Here I cite my own snacks in the office. I’m not so much hiding them, as not making it obvious to everyone else that I’m snacking when I really shouldn’t be.

An alcoholic may mask the behaviour by frequenting a few bars and having no more than one or two drinks at each. No one has the whole picture, hopefully.

Rubin encourages us to have this hard honesty with ourselves. It takes a lot of self-knowledge to tell ourselves the truth. It takes, even more, to tell that truth to those that can hold us accountable to the behaviours we desire.

The second huge takeaway in the final section is around being specific and matches up with the stellar book The ONE Thing, which I looked at earlier this year.

The more specific I am about what action to take, the more likely I am to form a habit.

If you want to succeed at forming the new habits you desire, don’t be ambiguous. That means you don’t say “I’ll reach out to more clients”. Instead, you say “I’ll reach out to three previous clients a week”.

You either did it or not. There is no room to waffle around on the accomplishment of the goal.

Finally, language is so important to how we believe and behave.

Research shows that we tend to believe what we hear ourselves say, and the way we describe ourselves influences our view of our identity, and from there, our habits

I see it regularly with my coaching clients as they tell me they’ll ‘find’ time. Time is not change in the couch. Nor do you “make” time, you do not have a time machine. The only thing you can do is choose to use your time in a way that shows what you value.

Remembering to have our language match up with the habits we want to build, will help us get there.

Recommendation for Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

As I said at the beginning, I very much dislike the delivery of many of the ideas in Better Than Before. Lot’s of eye rolls happened, and I’m sure my wife was getting tired of my small rants about parts of the book I found silly.

But the question is, is there enough in the book to warrant you reading it? Yes, in general, it’s a worthwhile read. Maybe grab the Kindle preview and if the style doesn’t suit you, skip it. Otherwise, there are many good tips here that can help.

If it doesn’t seem like something you want to read, then I suggest Switch as an alternative. While Switch doesn’t address habits specifically, it’s all about bringing change to your organization and yourself. So it amounts to very similar ideas.

Get Better Than Before on Amazon

photo credit: mabeljuillet cc

  1. The book I read just after this was Grit, so in retrospect, this section is especially interesting as Grit talks all about why and how people don’t avoid the hard things and in fact push through them. Watch for that summary coming in a few weeks. 
  2. See the book Grit for a bigger discussion on … grit. Funny that eh? 
  3. You can see my summary of Switch, here. In short, good book to learn new frameworks to bring about change in yourself and your team. 
  4. You can read my summary of reach here
  5. As I said, I run or ride or hike despite the weather, but I need a sweet accountability partner for sure. 
  6. Since she doesn’t ever cite a reference, I assume they’ve been checked and do match up with her conclusions.