My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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Want to Know Yourself Better, to Shape Your Habits Better? Take This Quiz.

self-reflectionEvery Wednesday is Quiz Day, or Tip Day, or List Day.

This Wednesday: Want to know yourself better, so you can shape your habits better?

Did I mention that I’m working on a book about habit-formation? Oh right, maybe I did. It’s called Before and After (sign up here if you want to hear when the book goes on sale.)

One of the themes of the book is this: If we want to foster habits successfully, we must know ourselves. People often assume that the same approach will work for everyone, that the same habits will work for everyone, and that everyone has the same aptitude and appetite for forming habits, but from my observation, that’s not true.

For instance, it was to try to understand the varieties of human nature that I came up with the four Character Tendencies. (Formerly known as the Rubin Tendencies, until some folks objected–still trying to come up with a better name–suggestions welcome.)

It’s hard, however, to know ourselves. And it’s hard to know the aspects of our nature that are relevant to how we might form habits.

I came up with a list of questions to help me understand myself better. Consider for yourself…

The rhythm of my days

  • Would I rather be ten minutes late or ten minutes early? (Oscar Wilde wrote “punctuality is the thief of time,” but I’m always ten minutes early.)
  • What errands do I regularly do? How many times each week?
  • How much control do I have over my time: what time I get up, go to work, go home, go to the gym, leisure time?
  • How much time do I spend commuting or taking other people to activities?
  • Would I like to spend more time with friends, or by myself?
  • At what time of day do I feel energized? When do I drag?
  • Do I like racing from one activity to another, or do I prefer unhurried transitions?
  • What activities take up my time but aren’t particularly useful or stimulating?
  • Do I want to spend more time outside?
  • What stores do I often visit—for necessity or for fun?
  • Do I have several things on my calendar that I anticipate with pleasure?
  • What does my ideal day look like?
  • What can I do for hours without feeling bored?
  • What daily or weekly activity did I do for fun when I was ten years old?


My values

  • Do I find it easier to do things for other people than for myself?
  • Do I find it easier to spend money on other people than on myself?
  • Do I fear that adopting regular habits will stifle my creativity?
  • Is my life “on hold” in any aspect? Until I lose weight, finish my manuscript, get a promotion?
  • Am I always working, or feeling that I should be working?
  • What’s most satisfying to me: saving time, or money, or effort?
  • Does it bother me to act in a different way from the people around me?—say, not ordering a drink or dessert when everyone else is doing so? Or do I get a charge out of it?
  • Does spending money on an activity make me feel more committed to it, or not?
  • Do I spend a lot of time on something that’s important to someone else, but not to me? If I had $500 that I had to spend on fun, how would I spend it?
  • Who are the five most important people in my life? Do I wish I could see more of them?
  • Do I like to listen to experts, or do I prefer to figure things out for myself?
  • Does paying with cash make spending money seem more “real” to me than using a credit card?
  • Am I motivated by the thought of winning or losing a bet?
  • Do I embrace the rules or flout them?
  • Would I be happy to see my children have the life I’ve had, more or less?


My habits

  • Given my existing habits, what kind of life should I expect to live?
  • How do I spend money? (Look at my checkbook and credit-card statements.)
  • How do I spend time? (Look at my calendar.)
  • What do I do with my weekend afternoons?
  • What medications do I take regularly?
  • What foods are in my fridge and cupboards?
  • What are the last twenty photographs I took?
  • Am I more likely to indulge in a bad habit in a group or when I’m alone?
  • If I could magically, effortlessly, change one habit in my life, what would it be?
  • If the people around me were able to change one of my habits, what would they choose?
  • Of my existing habits, which would I like to see my children adopt? Or not?
  • Do I lie about any of my habits?


Do you find any of these questions particularly helpful, in thinking about what habits you might like to acquire, and how you might structure them for greater success?

For instance, a while back, in a similar context, I posted the question, “Do you like competition?” and a reader commented that once he read that question, he realized that every time he’d successfully exercised, there had been an element of competition, which he loved. So he changed up his exercise habit to include competition, with great success.

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I'm just about finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you’d like to hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

Secret of Adulthood: One of the Worst Ways to Use Your Time Is to Do Well Something You Didn’t Need to Do at All.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:




As I work on my habits, I’m careful not to use a habit to make it easier to do something that I shouldn’t bother to do it at all.

I remember when I was helping my sister clear her clutter, and she had this elaborate plan to create a bunch of files, and to file a big stack of papers she’d accumulated, and to keep it up in the future — but then she realized that she could just throw all the papers away.

Have you ever faced this problem?

NOTE THE NEW FEATURE: I’ve added a Pin It button to the top of the post, so you can easily pin to Pinterest (I’m there myself.)

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My Fellow Upholders: Do You Experience “Tightening”?

wrench-spanner-toolFor my book Before and After, about habit-formation, I’ve been developing my framework of the four Rubin Tendencies. I’m obsessed with understanding these tendencies. (If you want to be notified when the habits book is available for pre-order, sign up here.)

In a nutshell: the Rubin Tendencies describe how people tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a work deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (my husband is a Questioner)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves (like my friend who said, “In high school, I never missed track practice, but I can’t make myself go running now”)


I’m an Upholder — which, it turns out, is a very small category. Rebel is the smallest category, but Upholder is also very small. So many things became clearer to me when I realized that fact.

Today, I have a question for my fellow Upholders, based on my own experience:

Upholders: Do you experience what I would call…tightening? That when you uphold expectations, they sometimes tighten on you?

I get the impression from other people in other Tendencies that often, as people try to meet expectations, they start off strong, but then slacken over time. They look for loopholes, they find exceptions, they become less conscientious.

This definitely happens to me, too, with some habits. But sometimes, I find, I experience a kind of tightening. It becomes harder for me to make an exception, to loosen up, to loosen an expectation. And that can be good — but it can also be bad.

For instance,  an Upholder friend had a lot of muscle pain, and I convinced her to try my strength-training gym.  She exercises regularly, but I thought this regimen might help. So she did try going, and she cured her pain, and now she wants to stop going — the gym is in a very inconvenient place for her, and she gets regular exercise elsewhere.

But, a trainer at the gym told me, although she keeps saying she wants to stop, and that it would make her life easier to stop, she can’t seem to stop.  Ah, her Upholder nature has locked in, and won’t release! Strength-training is on her to-do list, and now she can’t cross it off, even though she wants to.

I’ve seen this happen with myself. My eating habits are a long story for another day, but the bottom line is, I eat low carb. (Read Gary Taubes’s book, Why We Get Fat, if you want to know why.) Here’s the odd thing: when I started eating low carb, in the zeal of the first months of it, I was much less strict. Now that I’ve been doing it longer, I’m more strict. The rules have tightened. Which is helpful in some ways, but a bit of a pain in other ways.

In some situations, being more vigilant about an expectation is good — but sometimes, it’s not good. But maybe other Upholders don’t really have an issue with this.

Or Questioners, Rebels, and Obligers — do you face this tigthtening? or some version of it, depending on your Tendency? I’d be very curious to hear from people, about how their response to an expectation changes over time.

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My New Habit for Tackling Nagging Tasks: Power Hour.

hourglassI’m working on Before and After, a book about habit-formation, so I constantly ask myself, “What are the issues in my life that bug me, and how can I tackle them through habits?

One problem: nagging tasks. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started. I knew this, but nevertheless I’d accumulated a lengthy list of small, mildly unpleasant tasks that I kept putting off—in many cases, for months. Maybe years.

These tasks weren’t urgent (which why they didn’t get done), but they weighed on my mind and sapped my energy. As I walked through my apartment, or sat at my desk, the accumulation of these little chores made me feel overwhelmed.

But how could I form a single habit to cover a bunch of non-recurring, highly diverse tasks?

I hit on an idea. Once a week, for one hour, I’d steadily work on these chores. An hour didn’t sound like much time, but it was manageable.

With this hour, I’d tackle only tasks where I had no deadline, no accountability, no pressure—because these were the tasks that weren’t getting addressed. That’s another Secret of Adulthood: Something that can be done at any time is often done at no time. But although no one else cared when I replaced my office chair with the broken arm, or donated my daughters’ outgrown clothes to a thrift store, it made a difference to me.

I considered calling this time my “To-Do List Time.” Then I remembered a term from psychology, the “fluency heuristic,” which explains that an idea seems more valuable if it’s easier to say or think. An idea expressed in rhyme seems more convincing, which is why “Haste makes waste” is more compelling than “Hurrying fosters error.” I decided to name my new habit “Power Hour.”

First, I made a list of the tasks to complete. That was easy and almost fun; I get a weird satisfaction from adding items to my to-do list. I didn’t allow myself to add any task that had to get done by a certain time; I couldn’t use Power Hour for planning my daughter’s birthday party or buying airplane tickets (for some reason, I loathe buying airplane tickets), because I knew these tasks would get done. And I couldn’t use Power Hour for recurring tasks, like paying bills or answering emails, because I have different kinds of habits to cover repetitive chores. Power Hour was time to accomplish those one-time tasks that weigh on my mind, but could be—and probably already have been—indefinitely postponed. For instance:

 Make a photo album of our summer vacation

Use up store credits

Donate books to Housing Works

Move pretend kitchen

Round up and recycle batteries and devices

It feels so good to cross a nagging task off the list. A friend once told me, “I finally cleared out my fridge, and now I feel like I can switch careers.” I knew exactly what she meant.

Power Hour is enormously satisfying, because I’ve managed to chip away at tasks that were draining me. The joy of Power Hour reminds of another great habit that helps me manage the chaos: my one-minute rule. If I can do something in less than one minute, I don’t let myself procrastinate. I hang up my coat, put newspapers in the recycling, scan and toss a letter. Ever since I wrote about this rule in The Happiness Project, I’ve been amazed by how many people have told me that it has made a huge difference in their lives.

These kinds of habits keep progress steady and manageable.

How about you? Do you have any strategies for staying on top of those little nagging tasks that mount up so quickly?

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Story: You Can’t Protect Yourself Against Everything.

This week’s video story: You can’t protect yourself against everything.


This reminds me of one of my favorite quotations from Dwight D. Eisenhower:  “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

How about you? Have you ever taken elaborate precautions — only to be foiled by some unforeseen eventuality?

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