This article is part of the 2015 Word of the Month series, based on the monthly theme featured in the Every Day Matters 2015 Diary I designed for Watkins Publishing. In the planner, each month has a theme highlighted in the weekly illustrations, quotes, and activities. This month's theme is CHANGE.
I was thrilled when Gretchen Rubin sent me an advanced copy of her latest book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, not only because I've been a fan of hers for years, but because I find the topic of habits fascinating and it seemed like the perfect book to read along with this month's theme of change.
We all have habits — and most of us have trouble with them. Whether it's trying to make new (good) habits or quit old (bad) habits, we all have stories about our habits and how we've started, kept, or failed at them. In her book, Gretchen makes it clear that there's no one-size-fits-all solution to starting, keeping, or breaking habits. Her key insight is this: To change our habits, we must first figure out ourselves.
One of the aspects I liked most about the book is the Four Tendencies concept. (Want to know your Tendency? Take the quiz here.) I am right on the line of Rebel and Questioner and, with that in mind, I was able to see how some of the various habit strategies in the book would or wouldn't work for me. There are a lot of habit-related books out there, but most of them just focus on one strategy. The great thing about this book is that it shares insights from a variety of various sources, which gives the reader a range of options. The more options, the more likely you'll be to find a strategy that works for you!
To delve into the strategies, you'll have to check out the book, but I'd like to share some of my favorite insights (and my thoughts about them and the topic of change) with you here. Whether you're working on starting / quitting a habit or you're coping with / initiating change in your life, these insights might help you handle the change in your life.
"We should start the way we want to continue."
This is so incredibly true. If you want to start a habit, you should begin the habit the same way you want to continue the habit. For example, if you say, "I want to read for an hour every night in bed," don't start off by reading for ten minutes on the couch, telling yourself that tomorrow you'll move to the bedroom and read more. Begin the way you want to continue. After thinking a bit about this, I realized it not only applies to habits, but also to relationships as well. Try to start your interactions with others on a positive note.
"I just think, 'This is what I'm doing today.' Trust the habit. I take that first step, over and over and over."
Sometimes the idea of starting a habit can be overwhelming if you think to yourself, Ugh, I'm going to have to do that every day/week/etc. The word "every" can be very discouraging. However, if you tell yourself that you're just going to do it today and then say that the next day and the next day it becomes so much easier to do (or not do, if you're trying to break a habit). I do this all the time with drinking. Instead of thinking, I'm not going to drink ever again, I think, I'm not going to drink tonight. I say that night after night and this summer I'll be five years sober!
"By giving something up, I gain."
When it comes to giving up a bad habit, I think this is one of the best ways of thinking about it. Instead of thinking about what you're going to lose — all the cigarettes you'll miss smoking out on the porch with your friends or all those donuts you'll miss devouring on your way to work — it helps to think about what you'll gain when you give something up. In both of those examples, you'll gain better health and, particularly in the case of cigarettes, more money in your pocket. Reframing the loss of a bad habit in a more positive way makes it easier to get started and keep at it.
"A stumble may be helpful, because it shows me where I need to concentrate my efforts in order to do better next time."
If you're quitting or forming a new habit, it can be tough when you slip up. I remember when, after eight months of sobriety, I drank. It felt awful and as if all my hard work was for nothing. But the next day, I realized that this was a lesson and my stumble helped me realize that I needed to be aware of situations that were tempting for me. I used what I learned to avoid certain situations or handle them in such a way that I would be able to stay sober. Stumbling doesn't feel great, but it's a great opportunity to learn.
"Make sure the things we do to make ourselves feel better [like rewards, treats, etc.] don't make us feel worse."
This was one of my favorite lines from the book. If you're trying to quit a bad habit, it can be tempting to replace it with something that makes you feel good, particularly if the habit is really hard to quit. For example, if you're giving up cigarettes, you might start rewarding yourself with hefty portions of dessert each night. Those treats might make you feel good in the moment, but over time, they might prove to be more negative than positive (if, for example, they cause you to gain more weight than you'd like or you feel unhealthy after eating them). Rewards can be useful, but only if they truly make you feel better.
"The very words we choose to characterize our habits can make them seem more or less appealing."
Words are immensely powerful, especially when it comes to something we're trying to convince ourselves to do or not do. About a year ago, I wrote a post about the power of speaking positively about yourself but until I read this book, I'd never thought much about how much words can impact the habits we have or don't have. If you're trying to start a new habit, positive language might not be as difficult because, at the beginning a new habit can be exciting. But when trying to quit an old habit, it's important to be mindful of the words you use and try to frame the change in a positive way.
"We can build our own habits only on the foundation of our own nature."
This sentence really is the crux of the book, which builds on the notion that we have the best chance of creating and breaking habits when we use tools and tactics that appeal to our personal nature. One of the great things about the book is that it helps you think about your natural tendencies with the Four Tendencies and then it provides insights on how each tendency might do with specific tactics. The better you know yourself, the more likely you'll be to discover the best ways for you to create (and keep!) good habits.
"We must guard against anything that might weaken a valuable habit."
Once we have a good habit in place, sometimes we take it for granted and that's when it can be at risk of being interrupted. For example, I've been doing yoga almost every day for the past six months or so, and I've gotten so confident in the fact that I'll do it frequently that I've let myself take more days off recently when my workload has felt heavier. This could be weakening my habit, and I need to guard against rationalizations of why I could skip my daily dose of yoga.
As with her other books, Better Than Before focuses on Gretchen's personal experiences while offering an array of strategies for the reader to choose from, some she's created and others she's come across in her research. The book provides outlets for new self-knowledge in the realm of habits and provides a variety of options (with examples) that might inspire you to make positive, life-changing habits in your own life. Even if you're not really thinking about changing your habits in particular, this book is great for coping with change and getting a better understanding of yourself.