I happened to catch an interview on Radio New Zealand the other week which really pricked up my antennae. It was an interview with Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, talking about her new book Better than Before. The Happiness Project has sold over 1.5 million copies and struck a chord with people all over the globe. It follows Gretchen’s pursuit to discover what truly makes her happy, and contains a lot of scientific research and wisdom on how to increase your own happiness. She followed that up with the engaging Happier at Home, which charts Gretchen’s experiments to improve several aspects of her life related to her home, including her possessions, her marriage, her children and wider family, her engagement with her community.
In this interview with Kathryn Ryan (if you are really interested I would listen to it now as I don’t know how long Radio NZ keeps their podcasts online for), Gretchen talks about how creating new habits truly can transform our lives. Gretchen argues that if there is something about yourself that you don’t like and want to change, one of the most effective ways to create a lasting change is to form a new habit. A change needs to become that ingrained if it is going to stick long-term.
Gretchen states that our habits are the building blocks of our lives, and are so ingrained that we rarely think about them. Most of us don’t think ‘Shall I brush my teeth today?’ We just do it as part of our daily routine. Therefore she argues that our habits can be the most effective scaffolding for creating a you that is better than the old you.
She goes on to say that in order to successfully create a new habit (like giving up sugar), you must understand how your personality affects the way in which you form habits, because habit formation is not a one-size-fits-all thing. In her research she discovered that most of us fall into one of four groups: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers and Rebels. You can take a quiz here to find out what you are. For example, a questioner has to be convinced that changing something about themselves by forming a certain habit really is the best thing for them. I am an obliger, meaning I often overlook my needs for that of others, so forming a new habit which benefits myself is tricky. If we don’t get our strategies right, new habits just won’t stick.
What I love about Gretchen’s work is that she is PRACTICAL. I have read much about habit formation in my time, and none of it makes as much sense to me as her work does. There are a lot of myths out there (like it only takes 21 days to form a new habit), and Gretchen has sifted through it all. She has some great-yet-simple strategies for the different personality types e.g. say if you are an obliger like me and you want to exercise more – exercise with a friend who will be miffed if you don’t show up, because it is the accountability to someone else that is the key ingredient here. If you want to know more, buy the book!
She also talked about ‘abstainers’ versus ‘moderators’. Moderators are the sort of people who can have a block of chocolate in their desk and eat a square or two a day. Abstainers are people like me, who would scoff the lot straight away, so they find it EASIER to just abstain from chocolate altogether. What this means is that if you are struggling to give up sugar (or carbs, or alcohol, or whatever) it might be because you are an abstainer. Having sugar in the house, or indulging in it here and there is not the best strategy for you.
Obviously what she said resonated with me. Completely abstaining from sugar has worked for me far better than only having a bit here and there. Saying no to offers of treats from well-meaning friends and family is much easier for me than eating it and dealing with the horrible consequences (feeling tired, spike in appetite, craving more sugar etc.).
Anyway, after listening to the podcast D and I talked about some things about ourselves that we’d like to change, and how we might do it, armed with this new knowledge. D is an obliger too (although with very strong questioner tendencies) and wants to cut down his use of his smartphone. He has enlisted me to call him out whenever I see him using it either too much, or at an inappropriate time, i.e. while the kids want to play with him. In turn, as my accountability person, I have enlisted D’s help to ensure I get out of bed early each morning to exercise. As I am an abstainer I have also decided to exercise every day, so that longer lie-ins are just not an option. Hopefully exercise first thing in the morning will be just something that I do, just like brushing my teeth.
Having recently read Happier at Home, I have been inspired to launch a similar project. I will be posting more detail on this soon. If you have some bad habits that you’d like to replace for healthier ones, I highly recommend having a read of Gretchen’s website and books.
What ‘new habit’ strategies have worked for you in the past?