Creating Habits Demsytified with Gretchen Rubin

Watch out, I’ve been listening to my podcasts again, and Daniel Vitalis came through for me again with a great interview with a lady named Gretchen Rubin. Rubin is a habits expert – she helps people to form good habits and shuck bad ones. And obviously, creating habits is the key to success – doing positive things regularly is what creates a cascade effect that has been discussed repeatedly.

Creating Habits

There’s a right way and a wrong way to create habits for each of us, according to author Gretchen Rubin!

Anyone who’s ever started a workout or nutrition program will attest to this. Figuring out ways to keep yourself from eating the ice cream instead of a smoothie, or to go for a walk instead of sitting on the couch, or making time to get out of the house to do that workout instead of procrastinating – these all come about by creating habits.

But it seems that some people have an easy time of this, and some people just can’t do it. And frequently the two sides of the coin have problems talking to each other about these challenges – one group of people simply can’t understand why it’s so hard for others to do things that are good for them. And the other side gets frustrated and demoralized because they simply can’t seem to figure out the magic formula for creating habits that push them forward.

I’ve been in that second group for a long time. Sometimes, I’ve been able to create habits that have worked great. Other times, habits that would seem to most folks easy to set up have eluded me.

Here’s an example: taking on the Primal Blueprint diet plan has been fairly easy for me. Sure, there have been challenges such as having too much temptation in the house (my family isn’t 100% paleo like I try to be), but for the most part it’s easy for me to get back on the clean eating wagon after a binge.

On the other hand, doing something like writing in a journal regularly is tougher. I’ll do it for a while, and then it’s dismissed the first time I feel tired and don’t feel like writing for myself that night. And that awful “first exception” is made, and then the journal sits in my work bag for a few months till I feel guilty for not doing it, and it comes out… and then goes right back in for a few more months.

Gretchen Rubin has nailed down some of the problems we have in creating our habits, and she calls them the Four Tendencies. These are attitudes or persuasions that we have about creating habits and how we define them to ourselves as we work to develop them.

These tendencies, which will explain your best strategies for creating habits, are:

  1. Upholder:  These people respond well to meeting both inner and outer expectations. They like to please themselves and others.
  2. Questioner: These are folks who respond well to inner expectations, but not so much to outer expectations. They will question everything until it makes sense to them.  My mentor JB Glossinger would call this “getting left-brained buy-in.”
  3. Obliger:  These people respond well to outer expectations, but not so much to inner expectations. Other people have a great influence on them, so it makes sense for Obligers to seek accountability partners and the like to get to where they want to be.
  4. Rebel: (this is where I fell) These folks don’t respond well to either inner OR outer expectations. If you tell them to do something, they’re likely to do the opposite.  They enjoy being in the moment and controlling their own likes and desires.

Everyone falls into one of these four tendencies. Sure, some people may be more strongly part of one than another, but by and large we all identify with something here.  Most folks are either Questioners or Obligers, apparently, while Rebels are the smallest group and Upholders are just a little bit larger.

Rubin has a quiz on her blog that will help you identify which tendency you fall into.  Knowing this, and learning to work with it, is key to creating habits that are going to last for you.

So here’s an example: I’m a rebel. I am attracted to things that are out of the ordinary (which is probably why I like things like the Paleo Diet, MovNat, Obstacle Course Racing, etc.). I’m a natural contrarian and I don’t like society telling me what I need to be doing. If someone tells me I need to be doing something, my natural reaction is to turn away and do the opposite.

I think that’s why things that I have become attached to work for me so well. Paleo is very different than what the mainstream nutrition world is promoting (or was…). MovNat and natural movement exercise is a far cry from what fitness experts of earlier years were promoting. And OCR just seems nuts to so many people who are into triathlons, marathons, team sports, bodybuilding, etc. For a rebel like me to be creating habits with those sorts of ideas on worked with my tendencies.

However, something like journaling, which pretty much everyone agrees is a good thing (at least everyone in the success realm), got in the way of my rebel nature. With so many people telling me that it’s good for me, my natural tendency is to shun it – even if I don’t necessarily disagree that it would be beneficial. Weird, huh?

The key thing for creating habits as a rebel, apparently, is how you promote them to yourself. Rubin wrote a great blog post on this, where one of her readers talked about things like how she gets herself to eat healthy and do exercise. Promoting her boxing and weightlifting workouts, as a female, was very rebellious. Eating healthy by not restricting quantity but making sure her food quality was high came naturally (“no one tells me how much I can eat!”). See how that works?

So for me to get exercise by climbing trees, stopping every couple blocks during runs to knock out a set of burpees in public, etc. is exactly what I need to be doing.

Here’s an example of how another tendency might work: an Obliger might get the best results from joining group, or getting accountability partners to keep him/her in line. They respond best to other people and outside influences. A Questioner should study things to make sure they get the “science” behind stuff before adopting them, and then go after them full force.

I highly recommend taking that quiz, and then following some of the posts that Rubin has for your tendency type. You’ll learn a lot about yourself. I know a lot of people will say that creating habits all comes down to willpower, and of course, that is true. But knowing about your tendencies and then being able to combine them with willpower is going to be a much more successful strategy than shooting for something that you simply may not be wired to do, or doing it in a way that isn’t in your best interest.

Rubin has a book on this topic called Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives that I’ve ordered (and according to Amazon it should be here tonight!), and I will definitely get back to you on this one and talk to you more about what I’ve learned. Seems like this could be a great addition to any success library at the very least, if not an absolute game-changer!

Have you read Rubin’s book? Or do you have your own strategies for creating good habits? Share on our message board!