It’s no secret that our deeply ingrained habits—good or bad—shape our lives. We repeat a whopping 40% of our behavior each day. If we improve our habits, does that mean we can change our lives for the better?
Enter acclaimed author Gretchen Rubin, whose new book, Better Than Before, explores the good, the bad, and the ugly of habit formation and habit breaking, and offers specific and helpful strategies to make sure our daily behaviors are actually making us happy.
Gretchen is no stranger to the world of happiness research—her best-selling books (including the blockbuster bestseller, The Happiness Project) have sold over a million copies worldwide and have been translated into thirty languages. What distinguishes Gretchen is the rigor of her research, the approachability of her tone, and her willingness to use herself as a guinea pig in every new piece of research she explores. A former lawyer (she was the Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Law Review, and clerked under Sandra Day O’Connor), Gretchen brings a precise, analytical, and refreshingly logical approach to the often nebulous world of happiness optimization.
IVY Magazine sat down with Gretchen to glean how to break bad habits, enforce good ones, and use them to become happier and more fulfilled people.
What are the three most essential things every single person should know about habits, bad habits, and how to overcome them?
The most important thing to know is what’s true for you because experts often offer one-size-fits-all solutions that don’t work. “Do it first thing in the morning, start small, do it for 30 days, give yourself a cheat day”—the list goes on. Those work sometimes, for some people. But they don’t work all the time for all people. Ask yourself: what are you like? That’s the most important thing to think of. You’re going to have the greatest likelihood of tackling habits if you find the right way for you.
What are strategies that have helped you in your own life?
One of the most well-known, widely recognized, and very effective strategies is the strategy of scheduling. If something is on the schedule, we’re much more likely to stick with it. If I tell myself that I’m going on a walk at 7:30am, I’m more likely to keep to the plan than if I say to myself, “I’m going to walk sometime today.” I’ve already made the decision so I don’t have to make the decision again. If something is on your calendar, it’s something that should be done.
A strategy that I’ve also used with great success—and it works for a lot of people—is the strategy of pairing. Pairing is when you combine something you like to do with something you must do. Let’s say you want to watch Game of Thrones. You might say to yourself that you’ll only watch Game of Thrones if you’re on the treadmill. So if you want to watch Game of Thrones, you can only watch it on the treadmill. In college, I could only shower if I exercised. I remember one time, my sister had to put medicine directly into her eyes. I told her to move the medicine to right next to her coffee machine, and to only have her first cup of coffee—she was a big coffee person—after she’d taken her medicine.
Can’t people just break that promise to themselves?
You do have to be the type of person who can make yourself stick to a habit. In the book, I explain how people are very different in how they create habits, which is a generally overlooked fact. For example, there’s a type of person I call “The Obliger.” They are accountable to outer expectations, but they are rarely accountable to inner expectations. The solution is to use a pair strategy, where you’re accountable to someone else. If your husband can exercise only if you exercise, then you’re not going to want to be the person preventing your husband from exercising.
One of the most recognized and most powerful strategies out there that applies to me and applies to just about everyone is the twin strategy of Convenience and Inconvenience. They are two sides of the same coin. Anything we want to do should be as easy to find as possible, and anything we don’t want to do should be as hard to find as possible. If you don’t want to use your cell phone so much, don’t put it in the back pocket of your jeans. Put it at the bottom of your purse. Put it on the top shelf of your downstairs closet with the door closed. On the flipside, keep your gym bag packed and by the front door. You’ll be more likely to go.
Stress is a major impediment to people’s happiness. Would you call that a bad habit? How do you deal with it?
First, it’s not very helpful to think, “I’m stressed.” You are not articulating your condition. Are you stressed because you didn’t get enough sleep? Are you stressed because you are in conflict with your boss? Are you stressed because you just broke up with someone? Being stressed does not suggest any solutions. It’s too vague. Identify the problem. Why are you stressed? “I am stressed because I only get 4 hours of sleep a night” is a statement you can actually do something about. Strategies are not going to work if the root cause is not identified. Changing your habits can help you overcome your stress, but different root causes require different habits.
I knew someone who hated her life as a lawyer. I pushed her and pushed her and discovered that the real problem was her painful commute in DC. She started listening to audio books while going to work, and it totally transformed her commute, and her life.
What are your tips to encourage mindfulness? Can that be a “habit?”
In a way, habits are the opposite of mindfulness—habits put behaviors into autopilot. You know how to brush your teeth, so your mind can think of more advanced things. The mindlessness of habits is what frees you from thinking. You can make a habit of tuning into mindfulness. For example, you can set an alarm that reminds you to be mindful. (To me, the last thing that would make me feel mindful is some random beeping on my phone, but for some people that works.)
There are a lot of books on happiness out there, yet yours are the ones that have stuck. Why did your book go viral, when so many others have not?
You’d think that hearing about one idiosyncratic experience would not be so generally interesting. I have no big drama; I have no story arc. I was pretty happy when I started, and I am pretty happy now. But there’s something about one person’s story that is easy to identify with and learn from. A treatise that applies to all human nature is harder to relate with. You can read that and it can be interesting, but it’s hard to put it into your own life.
We talk a lot about what each one of us can do on an individual level to be happy. As a community like IVY, our goal is to actually help people be happy collectively, through new friends and ideas and experiences. Based on your research, what can IVY do as a community to help our members be as happy and fulfilled as possible?
Ancient philosophers and contemporary philosophers agree that the key to happiness is relationships. Happier people are the ones with more relationships. We need to feel like we give and receive support—that we can confide, that we can have enduring bonds. We all need to feel like we belong. Something like IVY is great because it’s all about relationships—deepening them and broadening them.
The thing about relationships is that on one hand, we crave connection, and on the other hand, we turn away from it. At a cocktail party, we are desperate to talk to people we already know. There’s a role for organizations and institutions to force people to be together and to make it possible for new people to meet each other.
Also, loose ties are very important to one’s professional development. It’s very hard to cultivate loose ties, and I think there’s a role for organizations to play.
IVY is a social university, inspiring connection, collaboration, and growth. To learn more, visit IVY.com.