Republished with permission from [email protected] the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Get more sleep. Stop procrastinating. Save more. Eat more healthfully. Many of us aspire to change our habits, but we often find current habits hard to break and new ones a challenge to make. In bestselling author Gretchen Rubinís new book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, she explains why habits can make us happier. Wharton marketing professor Cassie Mogilner recently interviewed Rubin when she visited campus as a guest lecturer in the [email protected] series.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Cassie Mogilner: What drove you to write this book?
Gretchen Rubin: I wrote The Happiness Project and Happier At Home. For years I had been researching and writing and talking to people about happiness. I began to notice a pattern. When I was talking to people about some big happiness boost that they had achieved, or more often a big happiness challenge that they were facing, very often they were pointing to something that, at its core, involved a habit. Somebody would say, ďOh, Iím just exhausted all the time. Thatís whatís dragging me down,Ē which is really about the habit of getting enough sleep.
I became increasingly interested in the role that habits play in a happier, healthier and more productive life. Also the question of how we can change our habits, because sometimes we can and sometimes we canítÖ.
Mogilner: You emphasize that an important step in changing your habits is knowing yourself. Why is that?
Rubin: Thereís so much of a desire for a one-size-fits-all solution. Do it first thing in the morning. Start small. Do it for 30 days. Have a cheat day. But there is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution. What I found when I looked at is it that all of us have to think about whatís true for us.
Even something as simple as, are you a morning person or a night person? If youíre a night person, youíre not setting yourself up for success [to get] up early to go for a run. Thatís probably not going to work for you. But often, people just decide what they think their habit should be, or they look at what Benjamin Franklin did, or what their brother-in-law did, and try to copy it. But in fact, what you have to do is ask, ďWhatís true about me? What do I notice about myself? Whatís my nature?Ē Shape the habit to suit you, and then you set yourself up for success.
Mogilner: I, like many others, want to improve my eating habits. But boy, that is a hard thing to do. Are there any habit-changing techniques that you would suggest to me and others who want to eat a little better?
ďWhen I was talking to people about some big happiness boost that they had achieved, or more often a big happiness challenge that they were facing, very often they were pointing to something that, at its core, involved a habit.Ē
Rubin: One thing is the strategy of abstaining. Again, this is a strategy where you have to know yourself. Because it works really well for some people, like me, and doesnít work at all for other people. Abstainers are people who do better when they give up something altogether. I can eat no Thin Mints or I can eat ten Thin Mints, but I canít eat two Thin Mints. Iím an abstainer Ö resisting temptation altogether. If French fries are your Kryptonite ó whatever it is ó just give it up altogether. Thatís easier for you. It sounds harder, but itís actually easier.
The moderators do better when they have something sometimes or they have a little bit. Often, if they know they can have something, they donít even want it. They do better when they do have a little bit that they allow themselves. This is true for food, but also for things like technology. If you canít play a little Candy Crush, maybe you want to play no Candy Crush.
But abstaining is a strategy that, when you know yourself, can be enormously powerful. But it may not work for you, so you really have to know what kind of person you are.
Mogilner: Is someone an abstainer across all of their domains? Or should I abstain in some things, but try moderating in others?
Rubin: No, almost everybodyís a mix. It really has to do with how you deal with a strong temptation. For chocolate, Iím an abstainer. But for wine, I can drink half a glass of wine. Some people are like, ďI can have no wine, or I can have four glasses of wine. I canít have one glass of wine.Ē So, it tends to involve managing a strong temptation. Moderators were a mystery to me. Moderators often keep a bar of fine chocolate squirreled away somewhere in their desk. Every day, they will have one square of fine chocolate. As an abstainer, thereís no way I would not eat that chocolate bar in one day. It would just haunt me until I had eaten it. But for a moderator, thatís what works.
Mogilner: Over the course of working on this book, you have spoken to a bunch of different people about the different habits they would like to implement in their lives. What are some of the things that people are looking to change?
Rubin: Almost everything falls into what I call ďthe essential sevenĒÖ. Eating and drinking more healthfully; exercising more; engaging more deeply with relationships, with nature, with God; saving, spending and earning money wisely; simplifying, clearing, uncluttering, organizing; making more progress and also stopping procrastinating ó those are two sides of the same coin Ö and resting, relaxing, and enjoying, which Iím sure is something youíre very interested in. That is, how do people experience the moment? How do they have leisure? How can they rest? A lot of people feel like they are just never at rest. Just about every habit that people come up with somehow fits into one of those areas.
Mogilner: In the context of eating more healthfully, you mentioned these strategies of abstaining versus moderating. Across those different changes that people are looking to make in their lives, what are some other strategies that seem to produce the best results?
Rubin: What I found when I was looking at how people master their habits is that there are 21 strategies that people use. That can sometimes sound terrifying to people because itís so many. But itís good because you can just pick and choose what works for you. Not all the strategies are available to us at all times, and they donít all work for everyone.
One of the most helpful and familiar strategies is the strategy of monitoring. If we monitor something, we tend to do a better job. If you want to eat more healthfully, you keep a food journal. If you want to exercise more, you use a step counter.
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