Habits Are Hard to Change
There is a lot to love about Gretchen Rubin’s recent book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. The follow-up to her bestseller, The Happiness Project , Better Than Before is an entertaining, highly readable book full of information on how to make meaningful changes in our habits, therefore, our lives. One of the key statements early in the book is “habits eliminate the need for self-control.” If you’ve ever made coffee, brushed your teeth and combed your hair while still half asleep, or if you quit eating gluten so long ago that you don’t even notice the bread basket anymore, you’ve experienced habit taking over from will power. Willpower is only important during the creation of a habit; long-established habits start to take care of themselves. This is a terrific phenomenon unless your habit is a “bad” one. Go to bed without brushing your teeth and within a few days it will take some willpower to recreate the habit. If you come home and pop the cork on a bottle of wine every night, after a couple weeks an evening without wine seems uncomfortably blah and some serious self-discipline will need to come into play to go back to a “weekends only” wine habit. The first part of Better Than Before deals with the importance of self-knowledge in creating and changing habits. If you know you are a night owl, there is little point in trying to create a habit of rising at five in the morning to work out or meditate or work on a key project. I also really appreciate the section on the importance of convenience in habit creation. For example, by taking a pre-made, healthy lunch to work, making it convenient to stay on your diet, the temptation of office doughnuts, nearby restaurants and the taco truck is less powerful. Rubin discusses the importance of scheduling, at least at first, when changing or creating a habit. To enjoy the convenience of a prepared lunch, you have to plan to have the right foods in the house and to make the lunch the night before or get up earlier to make it. If you want to get into a writing habit, putting an hour or two a day dedicated to writing on the calendar is helpful. A habit has to become part of the “hardscape” of the calendar, not something that is optional. Also, Rubin’s studies show that people who chart their progress maintain new habits more successfully. The craze for wristbands such as FitBit and Jawbone that track your steps and other fitness indicators really do motivate people to move more and develop a habit of increased activity. These kinds of devices and their accompanying apps can usually connect the user with other users and provide an accountability factor, which Rubin found to be important in habit forming. Key in forming new habits, Rubin stresses, is clarity about what we value. If you are sort of ambiguous about the “why” of a new habit, maintaining it will be shaky. Conflicting values—such as whether to spend more time working versus more time with family—make creating and maintaining habits in those two areas difficult. I love the example she gives about the couple who went to marriage counseling because they fought over whether to do housework or do something fun. They came up with the win-win solution: quit counseling and spend the money on a cleaning service. Reading Rubin’s book made me aware of why it was difficult to create habits in certain areas, even when such habits might greatly improve my life. Uncovering these reasons will make it easier to find ways to maintain the habits or decide I don’t value them enough to keep trying. Said another way, we can figure out when we want to work a little harder to be “better than before” or just relax and enjoy life in the comfort zone.