Habits reflect our values.
To me, this is a profound statement because it says that habits reveal what truly matters to each of us. It’s a sobering thought, when so many people say they are at the mercy of their bad habits, unable to curb them, and completely incapable of implementing good habits. We pay lip service to values such as good health, self-discipline, punctuality, wise handling of money, and so on, but do our behaviors reflect those values? Often they don’t. We carry on with bad habits, even when we know such dishonesty may bring consequence. Habit management is a dilemma for most of us.
Fortunately, solutions abound in Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin’s engaging book on how we start and maintain good habits. With research findings, personal anecdotes, and astute observations, this book offers an innovative approach to habit management, in that it takes into account the personality variables that influence how we drop bad habits and maintain good ones.
She calls these variables “tendencies”. She states that we each follow one of four tendencies when it comes to changing our habits. The tendencies describe how we fulfill or resist inner and outer expectations.
• Upholders meet both inner and outer expectations. They adopt new habits with ease. They are motivated by rules, procedures, and responsibilities.
• Obligers meet other’s expectations, but tend to resist their own. They adopt new habits to accommodate others. They are motivated by accountability and social connection.
• Questioners meet their own expectations, and will meet other’s expectations only if they see a good reason to do so. They are motivated by fairness, reason, and logic.
• Rebels resist inner and outer expectations. They have the most trouble in changing their habits, but are motivated by feelings of control and autonomy.
Rubin also reminds us that the way in which we take on new habits depends on numerous individual characteristics. Some people for example, are larks (morning people) while others are owls (night people). Larks will do best to schedule a new habit, such as exercise, in the morning. An owl might prefer to schedule exercise at the end of the work day.
The four most important strategies for maintaining good habits are monitoring, foundation, scheduling, and accountability.
• Monitoring means measuring progress or keeping track – a log, a diary, or even check marks on a calendar. Monitoring makes us conscious of the behavior we want to maintain and often serves as a feedback mechanism.
• Foundation refers to the four essential habits of adequate sleep, sufficient movement, proper nutrition, and an uncluttered environment. Taking care of these basics gives us the energy, stamina, and self-control to tackle other habits, such as those related to work, study, housekeeping, finances, and relationships.
• Scheduling allows us to the time to implement good habits. It lends structure and ease to decision-making.
• Accountability means that we take advantage of our social tendencies, allowing others to observe our progress. We tend to perform habits with more consistency when others are involved as co-participants, coaches, mentors, trainers, or sponsors.
Rubin discusses variations in habit maintenance: whether we start a habit gradually or go into it full throttle; whether we practice moderation or abstinence in habits such as eating carbohydrates or drinking alcohol. She invites us to explore ways to make good habits more convenient and to avoid the temptations that lead to backsliding.
She warns us to be alert to loopholes: the excuses we make to slack off our good habits. For instance, the “moral license” loophole gives us permission to do something “bad” because we’ve been so “good”. Example: “I’ve been so good about meditating, I deserve a day off!” Another is the “concern for others” loophole, in which we skip the habit, out of consideration for others. Example: “It will hurt my girlfriend’s feelings if I leave her to go for a run.”
The chapter on rewards is fascinating. Rubin cites research to show that external rewards are self-defeating in the long run, because people often drop a good habit when they finally receive the reward. If I promise myself a new dress when I lose ten pounds, I might revert to bad eating habits once I have the new dress. It’s as though a reward signifies a stopping point. Rubin advises, instead, that we find, within our habits, intrinsic rewards such as meeting a challenge, satisfying curiosity, gaining control, cooperation with others, competition, and recognition.
Habits become stronger when they are linked to identity as in “I’m a reader” or “I’m a person who meditates.” Better Than Before teaches the advantages of distraction when we are tempted to engage in a bad habit. We also learn how to strengthen a new habit by pairing it with an existing habit.
Rubin points out that consistency emerges from clarity of values (we know why this habit matters) and clarity of action (we know the specific behavior that must be performed). Ultimately her message is that cultivating good habits is the way we must live in order to abide by our values. A worthwhile message to ponder.