(Estimated reading time 5 minutes)
The foundation of building habits that stick is knowing yourself. This is the premise of Gretchen Rubin’s book Better than Before.
Why should we care about building habits? According to Ruben, we repeat about 40% of our behaviour almost daily. This repeated behaviour literally makes up our experience of life . Understanding repeated patterns and pinpointing dissatisfaction with them is an excellent place to start in re-creating the kind of life you want. The next steps, according to Ruben, are getting to know yourself and building habits from that knowledge that will set you on the desired course.
Some examples of things you need to figure out about yourself
I thought I’d start with understanding some of the things that influence my own habits. I’m a morning person. I function best with internal and external accountability. I like routine and structure. Abstinence is easier for me than moderation. In terms of stamina, I’m more like a marathon runner than a sprinter. I prefer familiarity rather than novelty. Ruben suggests that knowing these kinds of things about oneself will help create habits that fit seamlessly into one’s life and have some staying power.
A personal example
Using this method to assess one of my existing habits, exercise, has helped me understand why I think it’s been working. I’ve been doing Bootcamp with a trainer for about 18 months now. It’s a good habit (not an easy one though), and I wanted to understand why I’ve managed to keep it up so I can use that information to help adjust habits that I haven’t managed to keep. Now that I know some of the things that influence whether a habit works or it doesn’t, I can see why Bootcamp fits. It is at 6 am, which means a 5:30 am wake up. Don’t groan – remember, I am a morning person! That means it is much easier for me to be motivated and energized at the beginning of the day. I am less likely to make an excuse and not show up. A good fit – check. I like and do better with familiarity, routine and structure. Although the workout itself is different each time, I don’t have to think about that. All I need to do is show up – at the same time, on the same days, in the same place, for the same duration. That’s another check for me.
I am committed to feeling healthy, strong and energised, and that helps me keep going (internal accountability), but I also know that it’s a small group, and the trainer will notice if I’m not there. If I can’t be there, I feel the need to text him to tell him I won’t be there (external accountability). As an Upholder (one of Ruben’s four tendencies), having internal and external accountability helps me to reinforce a habit. That’s a check for internal and external accountability.
Recently I’ve noticed that I’ve started to skip the odd session. I don’t like where that seems to be going. After reading Better than Before, I decided to try and include something else that might help me to lean into my exercise habit a bit more. Up until recently, I have been going three times a week, but what I know about myself is that moderation is more difficult for me than when I’m all in. What I’m currently experimenting with is going every weekday instead of just three times a week. So far, I like the routine even though it has been a physical adjustment.
Exercise is a foundation habit for me. It creates a ripple effect. Other practices are easier to start and maintain when I’m exercising. It’s more effortless for me to eat healthily, drink more water and have a better sleep routine when I work out. Ruben says most people can create foundation habits in the areas of sleep, moving, eating/drinking right and uncluttering. Finding your own foundation habits and concentrating on those few things will help other desirable patterns fall naturally into place.
What’s Changed for me?
What has changed for me? I’m learning to pay attention to my unconscious patterns to determine if they’re creating the life I want. I’m conscious of keeping my natural tendencies in mind and constructing new habits around them. So far, this is helping me feel like keeping habits is less taxing and it’s enabling me to become more successful at doing what I say I want to do.
Helpful Habit Building Tips
There are plenty of other helpful hints in Better than Before. Here are a few I noted down:
- We manage what we monitor.
- Scheduling helps to stick to a habit by eliminating decision making– put it in the calendar.
- Starting is far harder than continuing, so if you have to take a break, then schedule the day you are going to start up again.
- Distract yourself – wait 15 minutes. This works exceptionally well when trying to resist temptation. It is even more effective when you couple the waiting with something active that you enjoy. For example, if I’m trying to resist eating something sugary, I distract myself for 15 minutes by playing with my dogs. This helps me feel good, the dogs enjoy it, and sometimes the urge for sugar has passed after the 15 minutes is over.
“Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. We can use decision making to choose the habits we want to form, we can use willpower to get the habits started; then – and this is the best part – we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise control of habits.”
Gretchen Rubin, Better than Before: What I learned about making and breaking habits – to sleep more, quit sugar, procrastinate less and generally build a happier life
Sue Das, Courage Coach, CPCC,ACC , B Soc Sc (SW)