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

Do You Resist When Anyone Asks or Tells You To Do Something?

ColumnIt may have been a while since I posted on the Four Tendencies, but have no doubt, I’m still obsessed with this subject.

I came up with the  Four Tendencies framework as part of my work on Better Than Before, my book on habit change.

There, I reveal the secret of habit formation. Really. Ready to hear the mystery solved? To change our habits, we first have to figure out ourselves.

Many experts suggest a magical, one-size-fits-all solution, but we all know from experience, that alas, such an answer doesn’t exist. We have to shape our habits to suit ourselves.

And in that quest, a key piece of self-knowledge is “What is your ‘Tendency’?”  That is: How do you respond to expectations?

-outer expectations (meet a deadline, perform a “request” from a sweetheart, follow traffic regulations)

-inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution, start flossing)

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

In a nutshell:

  • 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), so they make everything an inner expectation
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves (they often describe themselves as “people-pleasers”)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike


I gave a talk at LinkedIn about the Four Tendencies, so if you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, you can watch: for Upholders, watch here; Questioners, here; Obligers, here, and Rebels, here.

I’m always trying to deepen my understanding of how they play out. So this week, I’m going to pose some questions.

Today’s questions relate to the Rebel Tendency.

Rebels resist when someone asks or tells them to do something. They want to do their own thing, in their own way.

My question for Rebels and Rebel-observers: Do Rebels feel okay about telling other people what to do?

My sense is that they’re comfortable imposing their own expectations on other people — even beyond the imposition that comes when they refuse to do what others expect.

As Samuel Johnson noted, with his usual dry wit, “It has been observed that they who most loudly clamour for liberty do not most liberally grant it.”

If you’re a Rebel, if you feel like answering, I’d love to know what you think. How do you feel about imposing expectations on others? If you know a Rebel well, what have you observed?

And here’s a follow-up question: How do you feel about meeting expectations from people who work for you? Does it seem different when you’re meeting an expectation from someone who is essentially acting as an extension of yourself?

And what about meeting the expectations of your children? How does that work?

Another question for Rebels — do you enjoy helping other people, or teaching other people? Is this something you often choose to do?

Bonus question: I’d love examples from literature, movies, TV, plays, historical figures, of people who are Rebels.  For instance, read how novelist John Gardner described himself:

I hate to obey speed laws. I hate to park where it says you have to park. I hate to have to be someplace on time. And in fact I often don’t do those things I know I should do, which of course fills me with uneasiness and guilt. Every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay. That compulsion not to do what people tell me, to avoid tic repetitions, makes me constantly keep pushing the edges. It makes me change places of living, or change my life in one way or another, which often makes me very unhappy. I wish I could just settle down. I keep promising myself that really soon now I’m going to get this little farm or maybe house and take care of it, never move again. But I’ll probably never do it.

Or any other random observations abut Rebels or the Four Tendencies? What have you observed? Does this framework ring true for you? Tomorrow, questions about and for Obligers.

If you want to know when Better Than Before goes on sale — and of course you do — sign up here.

I've just finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you'd like to pre-order the book, click here.

Can a Vine Behave like an Olive Tree? No.

epictetusA vine cannot behave olively, nor an olive tree vinely—it is impossible, inconceivable. No more can a human being wholly efface his native disposition.

–Epictetus, Discourses, 2.20.18

This is what has struck me most in my study of habits. We can’t change our fundamental nature. We have to form the habits that work for us.

An Owl shouldn’t bother trying to form the habit of getting up early to exercise. A Moderator shouldn’t bother trying to form the habit of giving up sugar. A Sprinter shouldn’t both trying to form the habit of doing a little work each day, well before a deadline.

Those are great habits for Larks, Abstainers, and Marathoners. But there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all-solution for habits. Unfortunately.

An olive tree can’t act like a vine, and an Obliger won’t form habits the way that an Upholder will.

When we know ourselves, and figure out how to shape our habits to suit our native disposition–that’s when we succeed.

How about you? Have you ever found it much easier to form a habit when you changed your approach to be better suited to your nature? Your love (or dislike) of competition? Your love (or dislike) of spare decoration? Your love (or dislike) of bold changes?

You can pre-order my book about habit change, Better Than Before, here–but don’t worry, that’s not the actual cover of the book. Pre-orders really help a book, so if you’re inclined to buy it, I really appreciate a pre-order.

Video: For Habits, the Strategy of Abstaining, or, How To Be Free From French Fries.

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 hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.

Today, I’m talking about the Strategy of Abstaining. This is one of my favorite strategies — but then, I’m a 100%, total Abstainer.

Abstainers find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately. If they try to be moderate, they exhaust themselves debating, “Today, tomorrow?” “Does this time ‘count’?” “Don’t I deserve this?” etc. Once they’ve decided something is off-limits, they don’t think about it anymore.

Moderators, by contrast, feel trapped and rebellious if they try to abstain. They do better when they indulge sometimes, or a little bit.


If you’re having trouble figuring out your category, take this quiz.

Abstaining may sound rigid and hard, but for Abstainers, it’s easier than trying to be moderate

I have to tell this story about my sister the sage again, because I love it so much.

When I was identifying the concepts of “abstainers” and “moderators,” my sister was my model moderator. For instance, her weakness is French fries, and she told me that she couldn’t give up French fries, but she would eat only half an order, share an order with her husband, not order fries every time she went out to dinner, etc. Those are moderator strategies.

But to my astonishment, a few months ago, she told me, “You know what? I’m actually an abstainer. It turns out that it’s just easier to give something up altogether. “

But I know something else about my sister. While I find it easy to say “No,” “Stop,” or “Never” to myself, my sister is a person–and many people are like this–who does much better with positive resolutions. (I posted about this difference in Are you a “yes” resolver or a “no” resolver?) So I asked her how she was handling that issue. Because, after all, abstaining means saying “no.”

My sister is so brilliant with words.

She said to me, “You’re right, I can’t tell myself a negative. I have to make this a positive thing. So I tell myself, “Now I’m free from French fries.”

Free from French fries!

That’s exactly how abstaining feels to me. I’m free from decision-making, free from internal debate, free from guilt or anxiety.  That Halloween candy, that bread basket, that cookie plate at the meeting…they don’t tempt or distract me. It’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: I give myself limits to give myself freedom.

But the Strategy of Abstaining doesn’t work for Moderators.

Know yourself! It would be so nice if a magic, one-size-fits-all solution existed for habits. But there’s no single correct approach. To change your habits, you have to figure out yourself.

How about you? Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator? How has that influenced how you’ve tackled your habits?

Want To Break that Good Habit, Just This Once? How To Avoid Backsliding.

pieslicesI’m working on Better Than Before, a book about how we can change our habits. The most fascinating subject ever.

In it, one thorny question that I tackle is: How can we make an exception to a good habit, without disrupting that good habit altogether? After all, sometimes we do want to break a habit—to take advantage of a rare opportunity, say, or to celebrate.

A very effective safeguard for that situation is the planned exception, which protects us against impulsive decisions. We’re adults, we make the rules for ourselves, and we can mindfully choose to make an exception to a usual habit by planning that exception in advance.

When we plan an exception we feel in control of ourselves — we’re not breaking a habit willy-nilly, or invoking one of the 10 categories of loopholes at the last minute, to give ourselves excuses. And we feel happier when we feel in control of ourselves and our actions.

Exceptions work best when they’re limited, or when they have a built-in cutoff point. This morning, a friend told me how he’d used a planned exception mindfully to depart from his usual habit of eating only low-carb foods.

Many people tell themselves, “I’m on vacation, I should treat myself, I deserve it, I can’t resist these pies, you only live once!” And they completely abandon their good eating habits. My friend wanted to indulge, but in a limited way.

“When I was staying in a cabin in Montana, I ate almost all my meals at a restaurant that was famous for its pies,” he told me. “People came for miles to get these pies. Before I left New York City, I decided what my pie policy would be.”

His pie policy? One slice of pie at every meal. He told me his thinking, and I was struck by how many good ideas he combined.

1. “If I’m in Montana, then I will eat this way.” “If-then” planning is very effective; by deciding in advance how to behave, we make it easy when the time comes. Also, an exception that exists only in Montana is self-limiting. My friend loves pie, but he’s not going to make a special trip to Montana just for a piece of pie.

2. “I get one slice with every meal, but only one slice.” Yes, he had pie with breakfast, too (pumpkin-tofu or peach pie), and at every meal, but only one slice. Bright-line rules – that is, clearly defined rules or standards that eliminate any need for interpretation or decision-making — are very helpful.

3. “I didn’t take a pie back to the cabin; I could only eat it at the restaurant.” In previous years, he’d sometimes skip the pie at a meal, and take a pie (or two) home to the cabin, and eat it throughout the day. This kind of eating prevents monitoring — which is part of why it’s appealing — but we do much better when we monitor ourselves. 1 slice/meal = very easy math. The Strategy of Monitoring is one of the most important habit strategies; we do better with just about everything when we monitor.

4. “I broke my low-carb rule to eat pie–but only pie.” After the first few days, my friend said, he started to think, “Boy, a little ice cream would be great, and there’s a great ice cream place near here.” But he knows himself, and he knew that if he went from pie to ice cream, then soon he’d be eating bread and pasta, too. So he had pie and only pie.

5. “I knew I’d enjoy my vacation more if I had the pie.” For good habits, it’s very important not to allow ourselves to feel deprived. When we feel deprived, we start saying things like “I deserve this,” “I need this,” and “I’ve earned this,” and then we treat ourselves — often very unhealthfully. By figuring out how to keep himself from feeling deprived, he didn’t get in that “life isn’t fair” mode, he gave himself a treat, and he really enjoyed something special about his vacation.

Note: my friend is an Abstainer, and this approach worked for him. I’ve found that many Abstainers are mostly Abstainers; yes, they do better when they abstain than when they try to indulge in moderation, but every once in a while, they indulge.

By contrast, I’m a total Abstainer. You wouldn’t believe what I’m abstaining from these days. (For a hint, read here and here.) But to my surprise, I’ve come to realize that I’m a very unusual type, a real extreme personality. Which, by the way, was a surprise to no one but me.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: If we want ourselves to keep going, sometimes we need to allow ourselves to stop. Have you found ways to keep your good habits, mostly, and yet take breaks occasionally?

If you want to hear when Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.

“If You’re Always Future-Oriented, It Tends To Come At the Expense of the Present Moment.”

Chris-GuillebeauHabits interview with Chris Guillebeau.

I’ve known Chris for years. I don’t remember how we met, originally, but I’m a big fan of all his bestselling books and last year, I spoke at his terrific World Domination Summit in Portland.

I’m very excited for him, because his latest book is coming out tomorrow — I love the book, and I love the title so much, I wish I’d thought to use it first. The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life.

It’s not easy to dream big, and it’s not easy to turn that dream into reality. Chris provides the essential blueprint for people for whom the happiness of pursuit — such as Chris’s crazy successful quest to visit every country in the world! — is a key part of the pursuit of happiness. If you’ve always wanted a quest, this is the book for you.

I wanted to ask Chris about how he thinks about habits. For him, I know, it’s very important to feel free and to make the choices that are right for him. Some people (e.g. Rebels) think that habits are inconsistent with a life of freedom and choice — so I was curious to hear Chris’s perspective.

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

Chris: Every day I have coffee and pastry of some kind around 3 pm. I say “around” 3 pm because it doesn’t need to be 3 pm on the dot—I’m not that obsessive. But there’s a window: 2:45 is acceptable, and so is 3:30. 4 pm is pushing it.  Once in a while I have a crazy afternoon with a two-hour long meeting or something right during the window, and we get into 4:30 coffee-and-pastry time. That creates a minor crisis, but yet somehow I overcome.

This habit has made me happy for a dozen years and more than one-hundred countries. (I should make some sort of coffee-and-pastry global index.)   

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

Many people who pursue quests and other long-term goals are very future-oriented. They’re always working toward something and seeking to make incremental progress. They are “strivers,” essentially. Overall, I believe this is a healthy way of life. People who have hope and look to the future tend to be healthier, have better financial habits, and so on.

But—and this is no small problem—some of these habits can indeed interfere with happiness. If you’re always future-oriented, it tends to come at the expense of appreciating the present moment, something that we know has a lot to do with happiness. Therefore, their challenge is to continue focusing on the long-term goal, while making sure to occasionally look up and appreciate their current surroundings.

I wrote this answer in relation to the people I studied for The Happiness of Pursuit, but it could just as easily apply to me.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

My most important habits relate to creativity and productivity. Every day I focus on outcomes and deliverables instead of time-based commitments. I try to avoid impromptu phone calls, because I find them to be disruptive to creative work. I work with a to-do list in front of me. Sometimes I go off and do something else, but I find the list to be grounding and helpful when I get off track, which is often.

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

I believe we’ve had this conversation in real life! About two years ago, you said I was a mix of questioner and rebel, with a bit more emphasis on the questioner side of things. (I’d question that assumption, but that would be playing to type.) [Yes, I think Chris is a Questioner with Rebel leanings.]

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace them. Routine rules my life, perhaps sometimes to a fault.  For someone who’s been to every country in the world, I’m really more of a soft adventurer. Every day I do mostly the same things, from working off the to-do list to having my coffee at set times. I’ve forged a life around these and other habits. I always want to improve, of course, but I have no plans of answering the phone more often or quitting the pastry.