by Mina Simhai
Few books cause me to say “This changed my life,” but Better than Before, by Gretchen Rubin, has done just that. And it continues to do so—every day.
At first, I found the book a bit simplistic—like a chat with a friend rather than a serious look at the research. But, as I read on, I realized that Rubin is a brilliant writer who has elegantly distilled the voluminous research on habits into clear, concise prose. She writes that she often finds the story of one person’s life more compelling than boatloads of studies. After reading her book, I agree. It has affected me far more than numerous books written by PhDs and crammed full of statistics.
Authenticity and permission to be human—two primary themes of WBI’s Certificate in Positive Psychology course—permeate Better than Before. One key to successful habit change, Rubin points out, is knowing your tendencies. This knowledge empowers you to put in place systems of habit formation that work for you, individually. For instance, I might do well if I publicly declare my new habit goals, and you might do better if you have a clear understanding of why you want to create a new habit. There is no one recipe for habit formation that works for everyone.
The Four Tendencies
According to Rubin, when it comes to habit formation, people fall into four categories: upholder, rebel, questioner, and obliger. I was disappointed (but not surprised) to find that I am an obliger. When working at law firms, I never missed a deadline. So why do I now struggle to carve out time for my writing? As an obliger, I readily meet outside expectations, but find myself resisting expectations that come from within.
What to do with this knowledge? Rather than sitting around wishing that I was an upholder (they meet inner and outer expectations and have the easiest time forming habits), or lamenting the fact that my son, at the ripe age of 3, is clearly a rebel (resisting expectations whether they come from others or himself) and worrying about what will happen when he’s in high school, I can use my self-knowledge to set myself up for success. I can see that having an accountability buddy will be a key part of turning my dream of entrepreneurship into reality. I can give myself deadlines for completing various business start-up tasks. As a teaching assistant for WBI, I am leading a 30-day challenge on exercise, writing, and meditation—and having this supportive group makes me more likely to do my practices every day.
Are you curious what your tendency is? Take Rubin’s quiz online or at the end of the book.
Clean Slates and Rewards
Rubin also discusses something I’d never paid much attention to before: when to start a habit. New Year’s or a birthday is a typical time for a fresh start, but there can be many others. I read this book on vacation, and I treated my return home as a fresh start. Since then, I’ve been in the habit of waking up at 6:00 am daily to meditate, exercise, and write. If had waited a few days or weeks, I doubt this habit would have stuck. When we look for fresh starts, we find them.
I also see that the habit itself is the reward. I do the practice, feel the benefits, and this inspires me to keep going. I build intrinsic motivation, rather than eroding it, by, say, the reward of a new pair of jeans once I’ve done my habit 30 days in a row. While the new jeans might be enticing, I would then be doing my morning practice for the jeans, not for the benefit of the practice itself (as an obliger, intrinsic motivation—the motivation comes from inside me—is what I really need to build). If I do my practice for the jeans, I am much less likely, according to the research, to continue my morning practice once the jeans are hanging in my closet. (This is why, if our goal is to help create lifelong learners, it can be a bad idea to pay kids for good grades or reward them for reading books with time on the iPad—but that’s a subject for another blog post.)
Habits eliminate the need for self-control, Rubin says. Once something becomes a habit, it’s just what we do, without having to activate willpower. When behaviors are non-optional, we spend our energy actually doing the things that bring pleasure or meaning to our lives, rather than considering whether we should do these things. Before reading Rubin’s book, when my 6:00 am alarm went off, I would say to myself, “Do I really feel like getting out of bed? I’ll go to the gym tonight instead,” or “I was up too late last night working—I deserve to sleep in.” Now I have eliminated this chatter. The alarm goes off (I keep it out of reach, so my feet must hit the floor to turn it off) and my practice begins. In Rubin’s words, I have “decided not to decide.”
After reading this book, I find that I am shedding habits that don’t serve me, and creating new ones that uplift me. I eat off my kids’ plates only if I’m actually hungry. I’ve created a weekly schedule for myself aligned with my priorities at work and at home. These things seem small—yet greatness is built one little step at a time. What we do every day is what we do with our weeks, months, years, and, ultimately, our lives.
Want to learn practical tools for ensuring that your habits take you where you want to go? Read Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin, and join us for WBI’s virtual book discussion group online or live at 7:30 pm EST, on Monday, October 5, to share insights and inspiration on habit formation.
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Find out more about WBI’s virtual book discussions.
Mina Simhai earned her Certificate in Positive Psychology from the Wholebeing Institute, and currently serves as a teaching assistant for CiPP4. She is a recovering lawyer turned yoga teacher and mother. Her latest project is bringing the tools of positive psychology to lawyers and others in the DC area and across the country. Her top strengths are judgment, love of learning, curiosity, love, and appreciation of beauty. Mina is an avid reader and looks forward to launching the WBI Book Club with you.