Tag Archives: habits

Video: How Other People Affect Your Habits, and You Affect Their Habits

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To pre-order, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I’d really appreciate it if you pre-order it.)

Here, I talk about the Strategy of Other People.


In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca wrote, “Associate with people who are likely to improve you,” and if you want to form good habits, this is a very important thing to keep in mind.

Other people’s actions and habits exert tremendous influence on me, as mine do on them.

What others do, say, and think rubs off on me.  For instance, in a phenomenon known as “health concordance,” couples’ health habits and statuses tend to merge over time. One partner’s health behaviors—habits related to sleep, eating, exercise, doctor visits, use of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana—influence those behaviors in a partner. If one partner has type 2 diabetes, the other partner faces a significant increase in the risk of developing it, as well. If one partner gives up cigarettes or alcohol, the other is more likely to quit.

Also, because we’re quite susceptible to “goal contagion,” we may rapidly pick up someone else’s habits, so it’s helpful to be around people who are good role models. In fact, I’ve found that I’m more likely to be persuaded by seeing one person’s successful action than by the most impressive research. It’s a data point of one—but for me that’s a very persuasive data point.

Once I thought about it, I was startled to realize how often I’d picked up a strong habit based on someone’s passing remark.

People fall into three gears when it comes to supporting (or opposing) other people’s healthy habits.

Drive: People in “drive” mode add energy and propulsive force to our habits. They can be very helpful as they encourage, remind, and join in. However, if they’re too pushy, they may be a nuisance, and their enthusiasm can rouse a spirit of opposition. They may very well push a Rebel away from a good habit.

Reverse: Some people press others to reverse out of a healthy habit. They may do this from a sense of love, such as the food pushers who argue, “You should enjoy yourself!” or “I baked this just for you!” Or their behavior may be more mean-spirited, as they try to tempt, ridicule, or discourage us from sticking to a healthy habit.

Neutral: These folks go along with our habits. They support us whatever we do. Sometimes this is useful, but sometimes this support makes it easier to indulge in habits when we know we shouldn’t.

Have you noticed a time when you picked up a habit from someone else? Or when someone else’s habit rubbed off on you? Once I started paying attention, I was surprised by just how often this happens.

Are You Good at Making Excuses?

I was laughing as I read this piece from the satire magazine, The Onion: “Personal Trainer Impressed by Man’s Improved Excuses.

It purports to be an interview with a personal trainer who’s impressed by one of his clients — a guy who has made amazing improvements in the sophistication of the excuses he’s giving for not working out.

“Acknowledging that the progress made in such a short time was remarkable…[the personal trainer said] he is very impressed by the improvement in both the strength and consistency of his client’s excuses…’A few months ago he had really weak pretenses for not sticking to a workout plan, but he’s put in a lot of effort and now he’s sporting much more robust and powerful justifications…After seeing how he struggled early on with a simple excuse about traffic, it’s gratifying to see him push himself and dig deep for rationalizations that more believably exonerate him…[like] tackling a long, grueling story about how construction in his neighborhood aggravated his dust mite allergies.'”

I love this piece, because I love loopholes. Loopholes are so funny.  So imaginative, and so ingenious. We’re like cell phones searching for a signal — as we cast about for an appropriate loophole to let us off the hook.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote in his Autobiography, “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do. ” When we want to find a loophole, we can always find a reason.

Note: with a loophole, we’re not mindfully making an exception, but looking for a justification that excuses us from sticking to a particular habit.

If we can spot loopholes, we can perhaps resist invoking them, and do a better job of keeping a good habit.

The ten — yes, ten — categories of loopholes are:

1. False choice loophole “I can’t do this, because I’m so busy doing that” – this is one I often use, myself

2. Moral licensing loophole  — “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this”

3. Tomorrow loophole — “It’s okay to skip today, because I’m going to do this tomorrow”

4. Lack of control loophole — “I can’t help myself”

5. Planning to fail loophole, formerly known as the “Apparently irrelevant decision loophole”

6. “This doesn’t count” loophole – “I’m on vacation” “I’m sick” “It’s the weekend”

7. Questionable assumption loophole — “the label says it’s healthy”

8. Concern for others loophole — “I can’t do this because it might make other people uncomfortable”

9. Fake self-actualization loophole – “You only live once! Embrace the moment!”

10. One-coin loophole“What difference does it make if I break my habit this one time?”

I love that the Onion article highlights the point that even if a person’s workouts aren’t improving, he might be improving his loophole-seeking.

What loophole do you invoke most often? I listed my own favorite as #1, the false choice loophole. But I think that others, such as #4 and #6, are more popular.


Quiz Yourself: What Kind of Play Do You Enjoy?

Every Wednesday is Tip Day — or Quiz Day.
This Wednesday: Quiz: What’s your personality — for play?

As I’ve worked on the subjects of habits and happiness, the importance of play has becoming increasingly apparent to me. For a happy life, it’s not enough to have an absence of bad feelings — we also need sources of good feelings. And to master good habits, we need to feel re-charged and cared for — and nothing is more energizing than having fun. We must have treats! Play is a wonderful kind of treat.

For many adults, however, it’s surprisingly hard to know how to have more fun. If you don’t know what to do for fun, a good question to consider is: What did you do for fun when you were ten years old? Because that’s probably something you’d enjoy now, whether walking in the woods, playing with your dog, making things with your hands, taking pictures, playing basketball, or dancing around the living room. When I was ten years old, I spent hours copying my favorite quotations into “blank books” and illustrating the passages with pictures I cut from magazines. Exactly what I do on my blog!

Because of my interest in play, I read Stuart Brown’s Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.

I was particularly struck by Brown’s analysis of the question, “What is your play personality?” He makes clear that these categories aren’t scientifically based, but a product of his years of observation.

Where do you fit in these eight personalities?

1. The Joker — makes people laugh, plays practical jokes.

2. The Kinesthete — loves to move, dance, swim, play sports.

3. The Explorer — goes to new places, meets new people, seeks out new experiences (physically or mentally).

4. The Competitor — loves all forms of competition, has fun keeping score.

5. The Director — enjoys planning and executing events and experiences, like throwing parties, organizing outings, and leading.

6. The Collector — loves the thrill of collecting, whether objects or experiences.

7. The Artist/Creator — finds joy in making things, fixing things, decorating, working with his or her hands.

8. The Storyteller — loves to use imagination to create and absorb stories, in novels, movies, plays, performances.

I wonder if there’s a #9 — what’s the right word for the person who loves to code? Or maybe that category is bigger, “The Builder,” for people who love to build, but not with their hands, as in #7, but virtually or on paper. Or maybe it’s more about solving puzzles, like the person who loves crosswords, Scrabble, puzzles. Hmmm…I don’t have this quite right…what is it?

What do you think? Does this accurately capture the different worlds of play?

I found it extremely helpful to see these categories, because it made clear some questions that have long mystified me. How is it possible that some people seem positively to enjoy planning big events? Why don’t I enjoy having a collection the way so many people do (though people have pointed out to me that I do have a collection: I’m an avid collector of quotations)? Why don’t I much like playing cards or board games?

I am #8 through and through, with only a bit of #7. How about you? I wonder if some people have strong appreciation for more than a few categories, or if I’m typical, with a strong inclination for a single category.

It’s interesting that his list seems to be more weighted to physical play, and contact with the external world, while my own forms of play are mostly inside my head. Is play more “play” when it takes you into contact with the outer world and other people? Maybe…which makes me wonder: where does a love of playing video games fit in?

Do you see yourself in this scheme? What do you do for play, and where does it fit in here? What would you add?

Video: Are You Struggling To Change a Habit? This May Explain Why

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To pre-order, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I’d really appreciate it if you pre-order it.)

Here, I talk about the Strategy of Identity.


A great example of the importance of this strategy comes writer James Agree. In a letter I read in Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, he wrote, after he’d been told that he really needed to cut back on his drinking and smoking:

I am depressed because whether I am to live a very short time or relatively longer time depends…on whether or not I can learn to be the kind of person I am not and have always detested.

And indeed, Agee didn’t cut back on the drinking and smoking, and died of a heart attack, at age 45, in a taxi on his way to see a doctor. Agee liked to drink and smoke, certainly — but he also considered himself that kind of person. So to change his habits, he had both to stop drinking and smoking, and also “learn to be the kind of person he was not.” But, he wrote, he detests that kind of person! No wonder it was hard for him to change. Change meant fundamentally altering himself to become the kind of person he’d always detested.

To change a habit, we have to face that kind of conflict.

Another key point about the Strategy of Identity: for you Rebels out there (or people who work with Rebels), this strategy is one of the most effective strategies for Rebels.

Rebels generally have a tough time accepting the constraints imposed by habits, but because they place great value on being true to themselves, they embrace a habit if they view it as an essential aspect of their identity.

For instance, a Rebel might want to be a respected leader. The identity of “leader” might help him to choose to keep habits—such as showing up on time or going to unnecessary meetings—that would otherwise chafe. He will choose to behave this way.

If you don’t know what a “Rebel” is, it’s one of the Four Tendencies. If you want to find out your Tendency, take my new Quiz.

I have to admit, I’d been researching and thinking about habits for a long time before I grasped the significance of the Strategy of Identity. It’s very, very important.

Did the Quiz Help You Decide If You’re Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, Rebel? Some Thoughts

Last week, I unveiled my Four Tendencies quiz, which helps people determine their Tendency. I developed this framework as part of my research on habits for my book Better Than Before.

I’m very gratified that so many thousands of people have taken the quiz — and even more gratified by the notes at the end. The comments are fascinating. Zoikes.

To take the Quiz, click here.

After reading those comments, I’d make a few observations.

First, the quiz is meant to be a tool. It’s not infallible. Your evaluation of your own Tendency matters most.  The particular questions, the particular wording of the questions, may lead to the incorrect answer for you. Use your own judgment.

As one reader pointed out, the quiz is helpful either because it tells you what you are, or because you disagree with the quiz, you figure out what you are instead!

I go into much greater detail about the Four Tendencies in Better Than Before, and in fact, am thinking of writing a short book that  discusses only the Four Tendencies. (Would you be interested in a book like that?)

But Better Than Before doesn’t come out until March, so if you’re interested in the meantime, here are some of my responses to the comments:

Many people argue that they’re a mix of two Tendencies. This sounds sensible. And it also sounds sensible to think that “I’m X at home, and Y at work.” But from my observation, that’s not really true. Whenever I sit down with someone who says he or she is a mix, and put them through some questions, I find that (in my view), that person is actually firmly within one category.

Here are some common combinations, and why people think they’re a mix, and how you might think about it.

If you think you’re an Obliger/Rebel: There’s a very strong affinity between Rebels and Obligers.  It’s very common for Obligers to experience “Obliger-rebellion,” a striking pattern in which every once in a while, they abruptly refuse to meet an expectation. As one Obliger explained, “Sometimes I ‘snap’ because I get tired of people making assumptions that I’ll always do things as expected. It’s sort of a rebellious way of asserting myself.” Another added, “I work very hard to keep my commitments to other people, but I’ll be darned if I can keep a promise to myself . . . Though every once in a while I will absolutely refuse to please.”

Obligers may also rebel in symbolic ways, with their hair, clothes, car, and the like. For instance, Andre Agassi is an Obliger, and in his memoir Open, he describes ways in which he would Obliger-rebel (though he doesn’t use that term, of course).

If you think you’re a Questioner/Upholder or Questioner/Rebel: True. That’s because Questioners come in two flavors: some Questioners have an inclination to Uphold, and others have an inclination to Rebel (like being “Virgo with Scorpio rising”). For instance, my husband questions everything, but it’s not too hard to persuade him to uphold; other Questioners questions so much that they’re practically Rebels, because it’s so hard to convince them to do anything. But they act from a questioning spirit, not a rebelling spirit.

If you think you’re an Upholder/Obliger: Upholders and Obligers share a tendency to meet outer expectations, so in that way, they are indeed very much the same. The key difference is: can you meet an expectation you impose on yourself, that no one else knows or cares about? If you struggle to meet those expectations, you’re an Obliger. It’s true that some Obligers have such a wide sense of external expectation that it almost looks like an inner expectation: “I have to do this because ‘they’ say I have to” when the “they” is society at large; or “this is what people have to do do.” Nevertheless, in my framework, they’re responding to an outer expectation. Very few people are Upholders; many, many people are Obligers.

An important note: It’s not possible to discern people’s Tendencies from looking at their external behavior; it’s necessary to understand their reasoning. For instance, one Obliger told me, “I’m an Obliger. I looked like a Rebel in college, but I was doing exactly the rebellious things that my friends expected of me.” A friend said, “I’m a Questioner. But I’ve had a lot of experiences where the rules were so stupid, that I looked like a Rebel. But I’m not.”

Also, there’s an enormous range of personality, even among people who share the same Tendency. Some people are more or less considerate than others, or ambitious, or conscientious, or judgmental, or controlling, or thrill-seeking. These qualities dramatically influence how they express their Tendencies. A Rebel who wants to be a successful business leader will behave differently from one who doesn’t care much about work. A Questioner who is very thoughtful will have different habits from one who doesn’t worry much about other people’s comfort or concerns. I have an Obliger friend who is tremendously analytical and intellectually curious. So she questions everything…but when it comes to what she does, she’s an Obliger.

Remember, too, this framework has to do with how we meet an expectation, not a requirement. When we must do something, we do it–even Rebels. My Rebel friend started wearing his seat-belt after he got two huge fines. An Obliger might quit smoking, on her own. No one wants to get fired.

Also, whatever our Tendency, we all share a desire for autonomy. If our feeling of being controlled by others becomes too strong, it can trigger the phenomenon of “reactance,” a resistance to something that’s experienced as a threat to our freedom or our ability to choose. If we’re ordered to do something, we may resist it—even if it’s something that we might otherwise want to do.

And no one likes to be asked to do something arbitrary or irrational. The desire to know why we should do something, to have justifications for our efforts, is natural. The fact that you question whether you should have to do something that seems senseless doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a Questioner. Again, what matters is what we do, and why we do it.

People often ask, “Can we change our Tendency?” From what I’ve observed, our Tendencies are hardwired, and while they can be offset to some degree, they can’t be changed.

Yet whatever our Tendency, with greater experience and maturity, we can learn to counterbalance its negative aspects. As an Upholder, for instance, I’ve learned to resist my first inclination to meet an expectation unthinkingly, and to ask, “Why am I meeting this expectation, anyway?” Questioners learn to put a limit on their questioning; Obligers figure out how to give themselves external accountability; Rebels choose to do things because they’ve learned the consequences of not doing them, or out of consideration for others.

Learning to make the best of our own nature is wisdom.

P.S. As many readers suggested, I’ve added a category for “Adult children, 27 years or older.” And I was very interested to learn that the term “button-down shirt” is an Americanism: it’s a shirt that has buttons down the front. ***

***UPDATE: It turns out I’m wrong about the shirt. A button-down shirt is one that has a button-down collar, as opposed to a spread collar with no buttons. Go figure.  Am I the only one who misunderstood this term?

Also, I’m collecting examples of the Four Tendencies from literature, movies, TV, etc. Please send along any examples that spring to mind! I.e., Hermione Granger is an Upholder; Ron Swanson is a Questioner.