When tackling a growth category as massive and seemingly INVISIBLE as Habits, we have to lay down some serious strategy. Problem is… there is no “one size fits all” solution. Everyone responds differently. Today’s Teacher Feature is a habits expert and one of my personal happiness gurus, Gretchen Rubin!
This woman is a scientist of the streets.
After writing best sellers The Happiness Project and Happier At Home, she became a little obsessed with the “invisible architecture of our days” (habits, of course) and set out to write her next hit book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.
Why are some people able to stay regimented in their habits, while others struggle to be consistent? Well, if you really want to know, she goes into SERIOUS detail in her book, but for my purposes I wanted to bring you the action items.
What can we actually DO if we want to create better habits and quit poor ones?
Here’s my summary of Gretchen Rubin’s 9 Strategies to Tackle Your Habits:
1. Abstaining. Personally, when I hear this word, I think of sex, drugs or alcohol. But this strategy doesn’t just have to apply to addictions. It works for quitting bad habits as well. This strategy works best for what Gretchen refers to as “Abstainers” – people who prefer an “All or Nothing” approach. For example, instead of having just a handful of potato chips, they abstain altogether. Conversely, those same abstainers are more likely to follow through with a habit if it is every day rather than every other day. A handful of chips would turn into the whole bag, and a day off from the gym would make them fall out of the routine altogether. My husband is an abstainer, 100%. He is either committed or disengaged. I, however, am the opposite. If you are a moderator like me, you might fair better if you allowed yourself to indulge a little. Otherwise, I snap. Curious about whether you’re a true abstainer or moderator? Here’s Gretchen’s test: Could you keep a chocolate bar in your house for an extended period of time, and eat only one square or would you inevitably eat the whole thing in one sitting?
2. Convenience. One of the most surprising findings of Gretchen’s Habits Research was the realization of how much our habits depend on sheer convenience. She uses the example of her sister being more successful with a diet that provided her with pre-planned meals. That strategy is key for my Dad, too, who will eat pretty much anything that is put in front of him. If my mom is cooking healthy, he eats healthy. If he’s traveling, not so much. I noticed the importance of enlisting the Convenience strategy when it came to my favorite new habit of sending birthday cards to loved ones. When my stationary bin is stocked full with my supplies (markers, envelopes, stamps, etc.) I don’t hesitate to write and send them. It’s convenient to just drop them in the mailbox on my way out the door. But when I am out of just ONE item, I am burdened by the lack of convenience, and a week or two might go by where I fail to send cards. Oops! What conveniences can you employ to strengthen your habits? If you know that the inconvenience of going to the gym will keep you from working out, think about trying at-home workouts! Looking for Convenience strategy inspiration? Check out Lifehack.org.
3. Inconvenience. As the Convenience Strategy can be applied to forming good habits, so too can the Inconvenience Strategy be used to crush bad ones! When my husband insists on bringing tempting snacks (like my kryptonite, Oreos or Cheez-its) in the house, I put them on the highest shelf so I can’t reach them. If I really want them I need to get out a chair to climb up and that tiny inconvenience is surprisingly enough to keep me out of the figurative and sometimes literal cookie jar…sometimes. What can you do to make your bad habits more inconvenient? We removed the TV from our bedroom. It makes it much more likely to open a book before bed since it’s inconvenient to stay out in the living room.
4. Safeguards. Gretchen constantly reminds us that even our strongest habits are fragile. It’s important to set up safeguards in order to keep ourselves on track. She cites a study that estimated “people spend about one-fourth of their waking time resisting some aspect of desire- most commonly, the urge to eat, to sleep, to grab some leisure, and to pursue some kind of sexual urge.” Once you acknowledge a trigger, try to remove it altogether. Keep snacks hidden. Hide the video game controller. Figure out your “If/Then”. If ___________ then I will do ______________ and focus on controlling the “if-factor”. Since social media is a huge part of my job, I safeguard the efficiency of my work by shutting off facebook and instagram notifications on my phone. I know my “if”. If I see that little red number on my facebook icon, I WILL check to see who has liked/commented. The safeguarding strategy is crucial if we are adamant about being in charge of our own day. As fitness coach, Katie Proctor says, “We want a life where we are focusing on the IMPORTANT rather than the URGENT.”
5. Loophole-Spotting. Gretchen defines a loophole as “an argument for why we should be excused from following a good habit.” A very twenty-something loophole example might be, “I went to the gym today, so I can drink tonight.” We justify that “we’ve earned it”. The “Tomorrow Loophole” is when we let ourselves off the hook for slacking today, because we’re going to start our good habit tomorrow. Gretchen identifies too many loopholes to list, but I encourage you to read the book if you want to spot more of your own loopholes. My most common loophole used to be the “Lack of Control” Loophole. I would fail to finish a blog post because the coffee shop was closed. I would skip going for a run because it unexpectedly started raining. The solution here is to make sure the items on your agenda are PRIORITIES. Your excuses won’t hold your habits above water. Get it done. No excuses. No loopholes. Period.
6. Distraction. This tricky strategy is where we intentionally redirect our thoughts in order to keep ourselves from indulging in a bad habit. Gretchen uses her friend’s “In 15 minutes” strategy. If she wants to check her email or social media, she says to herself “Wait fifteen minutes.” If she still really wants it in fifteen minutes, then she can check. Usually by that time, the urge has passed or she has completely forgot about it. I implemented this strategy for dessert. When I’m offered dessert, I try to wait 15 minutes and see if I still want it. Sometimes I do, but mostly, I find I’m full or the temptation has weakened. Try it!
7. Reward. It would be ludicrous to ignore the obvious habit strategy of Reward. It’s human nature to be motivated by rewards, sometimes referred to in the personal development world as “carrots”. Using extrinsic motivations like my friend Annie’s example, “I told myself before I started this program, if I finish all 30 days, without error, I will buy myself a workout outfit I’ve been wanting.” Gretchen also notes, that we should acknowledge INTRINSIC motivations, the reward we get from simply pursuing a good habit in the first place. Some examples include challenge (which can bring purpose), curiosity (pleasure of learning), control (becoming a master), fantasy (using our imagination to make the activity more fun), cooperation (the satisfaction that comes from being a part of a team), competition (beating the odds, others, or a personal best is gratifying), and recognition (we feel proud when we are praised). Ultimately, the most habit-reinforcing rewards are the ones that change our attitude towards the habit itself. Before, I would workout because I didn’t want to feel fat or lazy. Now, I workout because I feel AMAZING and because good health is a priority for me. That is enough of a reward.
8. Treats. Unlike the Reward Strategy, where you must earn or deserve your reward, the Treats Strategy is something you give yourself just because you want it. All this habit-forming can be taxing on the mind, and it’s just as important to give yourself treats to keep you on track. The key here is to choose treats that make you feel BETTER not worse. For example, skipping class might seem like a treat, but if you feel guilty or it has a significant consequence, that’s not a good treat. My good friend told me, a treat is going to get her nails done. “I’m not much of a girly-girl and I rarely spend time or money on getting pampered, but that every-so-often treat goes a long way in making me feel good. It also helps reinforce other good habits, like not biting my nails. I even find myself putting more effort into my appearance when my nails are done. I feel like…. Well I’m already halfway fancy, might as well blow-dry my hair and put on some heels!” What treats do you use to reinforce your good habits?
9. Pairing. The final strategy in Gretchen’s arsenal is the pairing of two habits or activities: one habit/activity that you need/want to do and one habit that you are trying to create. For example, in an attempt to be more grateful in my daily life, I used the strategy of pairing. Every time I would blend my shake, I would think about what I’m grateful for. In fitness coaching, in an attempt to show busy people that they can be more efficient with their time, I suggest they do pushups while the shower is warming up, or situps while their coffee is brewing. Chances are, you already use this strategy without knowing it. Can you think of any?
Gretchen is one of my all-time happiness gurus, not just because she is brilliant and thoughtful, but because she recognizes the value of giving strategies to apply the concepts she values. That is what I hope I can do for you here at What’s Happyning?!
Now…time for feedback. Did you find any of these strategies particularly helpful? How did you apply them? What habits were you able to stick with/quit?