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

Want to get the "Moment of Happiness"? A daily happiness quotation in your inbox. Sign up here close daily quote

Before and After: Use the Nuclear Option to Hold Yourself Accountable.

HabitsRepeatFourI’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Brian Carroll.

I picked up smoking when I studied abroad in Vietnam. The father of my host family didn’t speak English, but he smoked, so he encourage me to join him. Open to new experiences, I went from zero to a pack a day in one week.


That pack-a-day habit stuck with me for three years while I tried everything to quit smoking — set deadlines, cursed my lack of willpower, thought that switching to a tobacco pipe was somehow better. It was terrible.


Of the hundred ways I tried to quit, here’s what worked: I set a date in advance that held meaning for me (the one year anniversary of graduating college), I wrote out a long list of both the things I hated about smoking, and the things I loved about smoking (so I knew the tradeoffs), and then — what I consider the innovative part — I hand-wrote fifteen letters to friends and family members saying “If, after May 20, 2001, I ever smoke another cigarette, I will pay you $200.” I sent these letter particularly to friends who themselves were smokers.


When the date came, I gave away my remaining cigarettes, lighters and accessories. I scheduled new after-work activities to break up my routines for a couple of weeks. And I noticed a funny thing: my smoking friends, who had previously tried to lure me back to smoking in my earlier quitting attempts, were now constantly handing me cigarettes — then reminding me of the money I was going to pay them if I accepted the cigarette. “This cigarette will cost you $200″ my friends would say. The letters had turned my enablers into enforcers. Needless to say, when that one cigarette would cost me $3000, it was easier to refuse it.


And that was it. I still love smoking, and really wish I could smoke. But I went from a pack a day to zero, cold turkey in May 20, 2001 and haven’t smoked again.

In Before and After, I identify the twenty-one strategies we can use to shape our habits, and this is a great example of the Strategy of Accountability. By recruiting others to hold us accountable, we increase our chances of success — of course, this is especially true for Obligers.

I call this dramatic kind of accountability measure — staking a lot of money on compliance with a habit — as  a “nuclear option.” A nuclear option is when there’s some major drawback to breaking a habit. For some people, this really helps.

A friend told me about how his mother used the nuclear option. “She gave up alcohol for a month, and if she had a drink before her time was up, she promised to give money to her grandsons to buy video games. She considers that a terrible waste of money.”

“Did she stick to it?”

“Yes, and it was funny to hear my nephews beg her, ‘Come on, Grandma! Have a drink!’”

You can set up a nuclear option online, using sites like

Also, it was a very good idea to give away anything that served as a smoking cue, such as cigarettes, lighters, accessories. — that’s the Strategy of Safeguards — and breaking up the routine — that’s the Strategy of the Clean Slate. I’ve noticed that when people conquer a challenging habit, often they’ve employ multiple strategies. We all need all the help we can get.

Have you ever used the nuclear option in the Strategy of Accountability to help yourself stick to a habit you wanted to shape? How?

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.

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.

“The Constant Temptation to Succumb to a Mindless Habit Like Checking Email Is a Constant Threat.”

nir-eyalHabits interview: Nir Eyal.

I first learned about Nir Eyal through his terrific blog, Nir and Far, which is about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. Then I met him at a conference, and had a chance to talk to him in person. A few weeks ago, I read his thought-provoking new book, Hooked: a Guide to Building Habit-Forming Products. Next month, I’m speaking at a summit he’s putting together, on the subject of habits (March 25, Stanford University).

So I couldn’t wait to interview Nir, to hear more about what he’s thinking.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on the subject of habits. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded? What aspects of habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

Nir: I think I’ve been most fascinated and surprised by how products change our daily habits. Many of our behaviors are in fact designed for us — that’s a scary thought but it can also be a good thing. If we allow some habits to get out of hand, we can find ourselves in a mindless reactionary vortex of Facebook checking and email pecking. However, I think we may also be on the precipice of an age where forming new healthful habits becomes easier than ever. If used to enhance our lives, new devices may actually provide the cues to prompt us to alter our actions in positive ways that help us lead richer and more meaningful lives.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

What makes me happy is not succumbing to certain habits. As a writer, I depend on focused concentration to synthesize new ideas. To me, the constant temptation to succumb to a mindless habit like checking email is a constant threat. I feel consistently happier when I successfully overcome habits I don’t want in my life and maintain focus on the things I want to accomplish. Truth be told, this isn’t easy and I’ve had to implement several strategies to prevent distraction. When I work for example, I use a program to shut off the Internet for a fixed period of time and makes it impossible to turn back on — that’s the only way I can get any writing done.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

One thing I now know about habits that I didn’t when I was younger was that one size does not fit all. There is a popular myth that bad habits can be overcome and good habits can be formed through sheer will power —  I think that’s just not true. I think there are four distinct types of behaviors and each requires its own method for change. For example some behaviors require tiny repetitious changes to take hold, like starting a flossing habit. However other behaviors, like smoking cessation, can’t be stopped with the same strategy. Each type of behavior requires the appropriate change method. I write more about this in an article on how to design behavior change.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Sure, I constantly struggle with technology habits — that’s probably why I’m so fascinated with habit-forming products. My wife and I had to take some drastic action to regain the love life our gadgets had destroyed. (See: here.) I’m glad to say though that by understanding how products change our habits, we could begin to unravel the behaviors that weren’t serving us.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Rebel, for sure. [In fact, my conversation with Nir about how he sees things, and how he manages himself, as a Rebel, is one of the most illuminating conversations I've had on the subject of the Rubin Tendencies.]

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Disrupting my routines really throws me off. I’m happiest when I can effortlessly begin doing the things that are most important to me. However, most of these things (like researching, writing, and exercising) can be difficult at times. So the key for me is to remove triggers for the bad habits that distract me from my objectives. Having a predictable routine helps me not have to think about what to do next.

Have you ever made a flash change, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Every household changes certain habits after a baby is born and we were no exception. But with the exclusion of a big life change like a move or a new baby, I’ve never successfully made a dramatic sudden habit change. New Year’s resolutions have never stuck for me. However, I have made several small changes, which over time have had big results. For example, with food, I give up the things I know are not good for me but that I also know I won’t miss. Many people do the opposite and I think that’s a mistake. They want to lose weight so they give up their favorite desert. That method requires way too much will power. Instead, I give up the things I don’t really like, bit by bit, but commit to it for the rest of my life. Giving up things you won’t really miss is easy. For example, when I wanted to drink less soda, I decided to only drink it in restaurants. For me, not having soda in the house was not a big deal but it cut down on a few drinks a week. Then, about a year later, I decided I’d cut out a bit more and would only drink sodas with a burger or on airplanes. Later, I decided sodas would be a treat only during flights. Finally, I gave them up all together. The process took about two years but no step felt like a sacrifice. I promised myself I would not make the change until I was ready to stop that behavior for the rest of my life and I gave myself the time to change.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Both! I seek to understand how to create healthy habits and break the bad ones.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

My wife has had a huge impact. Triggers are a very important factor in stopping or starting new habits. I’ve found it is nearly impossible to stop bad habits or start new ones without my wife on board.

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.

Which of These 10 Categories of Loopholes Do You Invoke?

loopholesEvery Wednesday is List Day, or Quiz Day, or Tip Day.

This Wednesday: the 10 categories of popular loopholes.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been posting about loopholes. I’ve made a study of loopholes as part of my research for my next book, Before and After, about habit-formation. (If you want to be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.)

I identify twenty-one strategies of habit-formation, and one is the Strategy of Loophole-Rejecting (I just changed the name from “Loophole-Spotting,” because I realized that the point of using this strategy is to identify and reject loopholes. Or do you like the original name better?)

When we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes, for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation. However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps reject them.

I’ve posted about each of the ten categories, but I thought it would be useful to have a wrap-up post, which include all ten and provides links to each. If you want easily to scroll through them all, start at #10, because each post includes a link to the previous day.
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

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?”

Loophole #5 has sparked the most comments. Which one is most popular, do you think? 1, 2, and 3 are very popular. Also 4. 5 is more common that I first thought. Also 6, 7 of course, 8 comes up a lot, 9, and also 10. Look at that. They’re all popular!

As Benjamin Franklin wryly commented 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.” We can almost always find a reason, a loophole, that excuses us from following a habit. But when we spot the loophole, we can perhaps reject the desire to let ourselves off the hook.

What loophole do you invoke most often, to get yourself out of a habit that you’re trying to keep?

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.

Story: Why Am I Living in New York City?

This week’s video story: If this is how I spend my time, why am I living in New York City?


I ask myself, “Why am I living in New York City?” but the message is the same no matter where a person might live. We should always make the most of our time! Which, of course, includes watching re-reruns on TV if that’s what I really want to do.

Here’s a link to the extraordinarily powerful public-service announcement that I mention, made by Yul Brynner, released after he died, about quitting smoking.

This story reminds me of one of my favorite resolutions from Happier at Home: Be a tourist in my own neighborhood. Also, take tourist photos of my own romance (photos included!).

[time passes]

Speaking of public-service announcements, I just spent too long watching several “Don’t Mess with Texas” PSAs, sponsored by the Texas Department of Transportation, that are described in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick. Brilliant.

How about you? Have you ever seen a public-service announcement that stuck with you for years?

Can’t see the video? Click here.

Find the archives of videos here.  Practically TWO MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe!

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.

Rebels, If You Feel Like It, and It Would Be Fun for You, I’d Love to Hear Your Perspective.

rebelFor 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 go running on the weekends now”)


I’m fascinated by all the categories, but right now I’m focusing on Rebels.

Rebel is by far the smallest category (to my surprise, Upholder is also a very small category).

Rebels, if you feel like it, and it would be fun for you, you could comment on your experience as a Rebel.  I’d love to hear anything you have to say, but just to get you thinking, here are some questions:

Are you amazed by what people in the other categories do? I have a Rebel friend, and it’s obvious to me that I, as an Upholder, shock her at times. I told her, “I give myself discipline to give myself freedom.” She said with a shudder, “Freedom means not following the rules.”

How do you feel about meeting expectations from yourself? Say, you want to write your Ph.D. thesis.

Is it different when someone who works for you asks you to do something, compared to when meeting an expectation imposed by someone whom you work for?

Here’s a very odd question. Are you attracted to situations where another institution sets many rules? Whenever I speak about the Rubin Tendencies to an audience, I ask people to raise their hands to show what category they’re in. Rebel is always the smallest category, and once I spoke to a group that had no Rebels.

Of all the groups I’ve spoken to, the group that by far had the largest number of Rebels was in a group of Christian ministers. Also, a commenter once posted, “You’d be surprised by how many Rebels are in the military.” I’m trying to understand this. So, so, so fascinating.

How do you feel about waiting in line?

Do you think that Rebel is the best category? Why?

If you’re married or in a serious relationship, is your sweetheart an Obliger? This is a very striking pattern. I’ve never talked to a Rebel in a permanent relationship with someone in the Upholder or Questioner category. (Makes perfect sense to me.)

These questions are only for your consideration. Answer any way you want — or not at all, obviously.

And if people in other categories have comments, please fire away. Do include your Tendency, if you know it, because it’s so interesting to hear how different Tendencies view the world differently.

You may be thinking, “The Rubin Tendencies are interesting, but what the heck do they have to do with habit-formation?” Of the twenty-one habit-formation strategies I’ve identified, the first, and the most important, is the Strategy of Self-Knowledge. To shape our habits most effectively, we must understand ourselves. And knowing your Rubin Tendency is enormously helpful in figuring out how to set up habits for success.

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.