New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Rubin talked with Addiction.com prior to the launch of her just-out book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives — her first since The Happiness Project. Her newest work is about the power of making habits: how habits can preserve your self-control (what Rubin calls “self-command”), help you regain order and even channel your inner calm.
Susan Jara for Addiction.com: Why did you decide to write Better Than Before?
Gretchen Rubin: I had been writing, researching and talking to people about happiness for years, and I began to notice that when they talked about a big happiness challenge, often at its core was a habit — a habit they couldn’t make or couldn’t break. It wasn’t that they hadn’t figured out what would make a difference to their happiness; it was that they were somehow not able to follow through with the kind of change they wanted to make. So I became interested in the question: How do people change their habits?
SJ: Making decisions doesn’t come easily to a lot of people. How does making habits free you from making decisions?
GR: The thing about a habit is that you don’t have to use decision-making or willpower; it just happens automatically so it’s so freeing and energizing. You don’t have to fight that battle every time: Am I going to go to the gym? Am I going to hit the snooze alarm?
Just stick to the habit: Put your keys in the same place. Have a salad for lunch. Wear the same clothes every day. People do all kinds of things. Decision-making and willpower are very draining — the more taxed you are, the more you want to move things into a habit because that’s going to preserve your self-control.
SJ: I loved the quotes that kick-start every chapter in Better Than Before. Do you have a favorite?
GR: One of my favorites, though it’s kind of dark, is the one from [writer] John Gardner: “Every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.” That’s very true for habits. You can stay up late and watch TV, or you can go to bed early, but there’s a cost either way. We all have to decide what we value and what we want. You can’t stay up late watching TV and then wake up feeling well-rested.
SJ: When reading your book I noticed many parallels to the steps many addicts take to achieve long-term sobriety — for instance, the importance of making a schedule.
GR: For just about everyone, they are much more likely to do something if it’s on a schedule; part of that is the specificity. You can’t just say, “I’m going to exercise tomorrow”; if it’s on the calendar you are committing to a slot — I’m going to the gym at 8 am — so that eliminates the decision-making. Just seeing it makes it part of what you’re expecting from yourself. Scheduling is very, very powerful.
SJ: What’s one strategy from your book that could help someone in recovery from addiction?
GR: The “Strategy of Treats.” When you give more to yourself, you can ask more from yourself. People who are coming out of addiction have a lot of drains on their self-command; they’re constantly reining themselves in. If they give themselves healthy treats, it’s going to keep their battery charged and their self-command high. Make a long list of healthy treats so that any time you start into that cycle of “I need this; I’ve earned this; I deserve this; I’ve got to have this,” you have something healthy to give yourself and don’t feel entitled to break your good habits. This could be a crossword puzzle on your iPad, a funny video or perfume, which is one of my favorite treats. I know a guy who buys himself new music from iTunes every Tuesday morning. There are a lot of treats that are often unhealthy, especially in the areas of shopping, food and drink and technology, so you have to know what your healthy treats are.
SJ: Could you give Addiction.com readers a “Try This At Home” suggestion — an easy habit to add to your daily routine — from your podcast?
GR: “The One-Minute Rule:” If you can do something in less than a minute, go ahead and do it. If you can hang up your coat; rip open a letter, scan it and toss it; print out a letter and file it; write a one-word answer to an email; put the lid on the peanut butter and put it back in the cabinet – do it. This gets rid of all those little tiny tasks that are inconsequential on their own but can quickly mount up and become overwhelming. Many people, including my own father, say this is transformative. You start having a lot more order.
SJ: Why is it important to tackle habits that help us unclutter our environment?
GR: One thing that has surprised me, both in the study of happiness and habits, is the degree to which for most people outer order contributes to inner calm. There is something about getting outer order that is both calming and energizing; it makes people feel this boost of creativity and productivity — and it’s totally disproportionate; I’m puzzled about it over and over. Why does cleaning out your coat closet feel so good? It doesn’t make sense. Somebody once said to me, “I cleaned out my fridge and now I know I can switch careers.” And I knew exactly what she meant. Any time you’re trying to impose greater order on yourself and use self-command, outer order is so helpful. Self-command is so precious and that’s why habits are helpful because they preserve that part of our personality — our self-command, our self-control, our willpower.
SJ: In your book you talk about how it’s important to “fail small, not big.” How does this help you stick to a habit long-term?
GR: My favorite story is the woman who told her husband, “I’ve quit smoking, and even if you see me smoking a cigarette, you remind me: I’ve quit smoking.” I thought that was so good because she was [saying] even if I screw up, even if I have a cigarette, I’m still committed. My identity is, I have quit smoking; I’m no longer a smoker. You see this a lot with food where people are like, “I’ve had one cupcake, so I might as well eat the entire box because I’m not perfect anymore.” But it’s good to say to yourself, I’m going to fail small or I’m going to learn from this and do better next time. If you have a bad morning, think of the clock re-setting at noon. You want to do whatever you can to keep that sense of failure small. People do better when they don’t load themselves with shame and guilt but instead show self-compassion to themselves.
Gretchen Rubin photo: Elena Seibert