By Heidi Stevens
Our habits, says Gretchen Rubin, are our destiny.
Which isn’t to say they’re predetermined.
Quite the contrary, maintains Rubin, the author and blogger who became a household name with her happiness research, spelled out masterfully in the best-selling “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home,” both of which sold more than two million copies.
In her new book, “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives” (Crown), Rubin turns her focus to habits. She says we have the inherent power to start good ones and stop bad ones, but we are surprisingly loath to do so.
“Habits are part of your identity,” Rubin said in a recent phone interview. “Changing them means changing a fundamental part of who we are.”
But change can be good. Particularly if it helps us live longer, healthier, indeed, happier lives, the objective of Rubin’s latest project.
“Habits are the invisible architecture of our lives,” Rubin writes. “We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives.”
Most of us, Rubin writes, want to change habits that fall into the “essential seven:”
1. More healthy eating and drinking (give up sugar, eat more vegetables, drink less alcohol).
2. Exercise regularly.
3. Save, spend and earn wisely (save regularly, pay down debt, donate to worthy causes, stick to a budget).
4. Rest, relax and enjoy (stop watching TV in bed, turn off a cellphone, spend time in nature, cultivate silence, get enough sleep, spend less time in the car).
5. Accomplish more, stop procrastinating (practice an instrument, work without interruption, learn a language, maintain a blog).
6. Simplify, clear, clean and organize (make the bed, file regularly, put keys away in the same place, recycle).
7. Engage more deeply in relationships, with other people, with God, with the world (call friends, volunteer, have more sex, spend more time with family, attend religious services).
“The essential seven reflect the fact that we often feel both tired and wired,” she writes. “We feel exhausted, but also feel jacked up on adrenaline, caffeine and sugar. We feel frantically busy, but also feel that we’re not spending enough time on the things that really matter.”
Were truer words ever written?
“It’s not that you’re in a crisis,” said Rubin, who lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters. “It’s just a nagging sense that you wish you could be more on top of things.”
Now: Getting there.
Step 1: Separate your habits from yourself
In “Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships” (Tarcher/Penguin), psychiatrist Amy Banks writes about the effect of bad habits (lying, cheating, losing your temper) on our relationships.
“Many people come to define themselves by their bad habits or their failures,” Banks writes. “Being able to recognize the bad habit as something apart from themselves is an important first step.”
We’re rebels. We’re rule-followers. We’re contrarian. We’re infallible.
We want more sleep, but we don’t see ourselves as early-to-bed fuddy-duddies. We should exercise more, but we don’t identify with gym rats. We need to take on fewer projects, but we’re not really the “say-no” type.
Rubin says she spoke with friends who, despite overwhelming evidence against smoking, struggled to give it up for reasons beyond the chemical addiction.
“They didn’t like being the kind of people who didn’t smoke,” she said. “They had to let go of the idea of themselves as urban, cigarette-smoking intellectuals.”
What is change, after all, if not letting go?
But once you’ve separated your habit from your identity, you can establish a mechanism for altering it.
Step 2: Align your values
“It’s all about self-awareness,” Rubin said. “All of our habits, all of our happiness, comes right back down to self-awareness.”
A fair portion of “Better Than Before” is devoted to helping readers figure out what makes them tick. Do you prefer simplicity or abundance? Are you competitive? Are you a procrastinator? What can you do for hours and not feel bored?
“I should tailor my habits to the fundamental aspects of my nature that aren’t going to change,” Rubin writes. “To avoid wasting my precious habit-formation energy on dead ends, I need to shape my habits to suit me.
“We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses,” she writes. “We must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.”
We also have to ask what we want out of life.
Rubin, for example, longed for more time with her older daughter.
“I had to ask myself, ‘How can I make that happen?'” she said. “Scheduling ways to make it happen every week helps me monitor whether I’m putting time aside for her and asking her to put aside time for me.”
Step 3: Hold yourself accountable
“You have to monitor whatever is essential to you,” Rubin said. “It’s the only way to ensure that your life reflects your values.”
If you want to walk more, Rubin said, you buy a pedometer. Likewise, if you want to read more, you should keep track of how many books you read.
“Anything that’s important to you, the more you track it and are aware of it, the better you tend to do at it.”
Rubin says every personality type benefits from accountability.
“It really is the key piece,” she said.
Accountability comes in various forms. You can hire someone (a personal trainer or financial planner); you can take your goals public (tell all your co-workers, family, friends, blog subscribers); you can join a group (Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous); you can buy a device (a Fitbit or a calorie-tracking app) or you can adopt an accountability partner.
The point is, we behave better when someone or something is watching.
Step 4: Don’t stop
Stumbling blocks litter the path to change. It’s critical, Rubin says, to avoid tripping on them.
“Because taking the first step is so important, and often so difficult, I try not to falter in my steps once I’ve started,” she writes. “Stopping halts momentum, breeds guilt, makes us feel bad about losing ground and, worst of all, breaks the habit so that the need for decision-making returns, which demands energy, and often results in making a bad decision.”
So while a cheat day (or month) might seem like a much-deserved treat for all your progress, Rubin suggests weighing the consequences carefully.
“While some habits are almost unbreakable, some habits remain fragile, even after years,” she writes. “We must guard against anything that might weaken a valuable habit. Every added link in the chain strengthens the habit, and any break in the chain marks a potential stopping point.”