Fix your habits: Personalize them

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Great article with Gretchen Rubin (it’s essentially an interview) at Wharton’s website, and it ends with this (the end of interviews tend to be a good summary of everything that went on, right?):

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. We’re constantly told, “If only you would do it this way or try this. This is the magic solution.” Some things work for some people, sometimes. But nothing works for everybody all the time. A lot of things that work very well for some people actually are counterproductive for some. You really have to think about yourself. Even things as simple as, “Are you a morning person or a night person?”, when you think about yourself, then you can shape the habit to suit you. That’s what allows people to succeed. We get discouraged because we try and fail. But often, we haven’t set ourselves up for success because we haven’t shaped it in a way that’s going to be in harmony with our nature, our values, our interests. When we do that, then there’s a lot more that we can do that’s going to allow us to succeed.

She’s the author of The Happiness Project and has a new book out, but here she’s talking about habits and habit formation and how to do it successfully. This is a big topic — nay, a huge one — so much so that even I’ve written something about it.

Why are habits important?

Habits are insanely powerful. Your brain has to habituate something for a number of reasons, and once it does, it changes almost everything about your behaviors related to that topic. It’s a big deal — both for good and bad reasons, as Rubin references in the interview.

But this quote is very important and powerful, because habit formation and behavior change is likely a multi-billion dollar industry. You have sections of bookstores, you have TED Talks guys, you have people flying around the world trying to tell organizations how to shift their culture and “DNA” and daily behaviors, etc.

And in a way, everyone is chasing that quick fix that will cost the least money, or involve the least amount of real change, or whatever the case may be … but in reality, what’s going to work for a person is different for almost every person, or for every organization. One-size-fits-all doesn’t really exist.

The Essential Seven

Here’s the “Essential Seven” things you need to be taking care of, in Rubin’s eyes:

  • Eat and drink in a more healthy way
  • Exercise
  • Engage more deeply with relationships, nature, and God
  • Save, spend, and earn money wisely
  • Simplify, clear, unclutter, and organize
  • Make more progress/procrastinate less
  • Rest, relax, and enjoy

I just ran through that for myself: bad on 1, OK on 2, OK on 3, bad on 4, OK on 5, OK on 6, and OK on 7. I’m actually doing better than I thought! Nice.

Interestingly, if you compare these seven with the Blue Zones’ nine ways to live longer, there’s a lot of overlap around health and powerful relationships. Not surprising, but good to see/interesting.

Now here’s the part about how habit formation is a double-edged sword:

If you don’t have the habit of kissing every morning, you just forget to do it. Part of it is that habit does help us ensure that the things that are really important to us actually get done. In that way, there’s still something to be said for putting it on automatic. But you’re absolutely right. Habits speed time. The first month on a job feels like it takes forever. But then the fifth year on the job goes in a flash. Because as things become more familiar, the brain just speeds through them. To do something novel and challenging slows time. Most of us enjoy experiencing slow, rich time. So, that’s a negative of habit.

The other thing is, as you say, they deaden experience. Now, sometimes that can be good. Like, if you’re doing something that makes you anxious, and you do it over and over until it becomes a habit, that will deaden those negative feelings. But also, if you’re kissing every morning, maybe you’re not going to experience it. It’s going to deaden your feelings. Or, like, the first couple times you had that morning cup of coffee, it was bliss. But now that you have it every day, you don’t even taste it. You’re frantic if you don’t get it. But you don’t even taste it.

There are downsides, but we need to think about all this stuff more: habits are essentially how your brain organizes basic tasks, so having an understanding of the pros and cons of them is a good place to operate from.

Habits and The Temple of Busy

I do think the important flip side / sub-argument here is “The Temple of Busy,” which most Americans/first-worlders worship at. There is a huge difference between “being busy” and “being productive;” the former is a way to justify that you’re doing something, and the latter is actually providing a benefit back to you (and potentially others) in some way. It’s very hard to think about habits and mastering your schedule and focusing on what matters and spending some time relaxing — it’s very hard to do all that if you’ve set it up in your head that you’re busy all the time and you have no time for anything else.

Plus, being busy is a function of choices you make … so why are you complaining about it at all?

I think that’s where the rubber meets the road on a lot of these productivity/happiness/habit formation/purpose-seeking discussions. People need to honestly look at their lives and how busy they are, then figure out what’s making them busy that can go away (pointless meetings or commitments) and move them away. It’s not easy to do, but at base level it’s fairly simple. It’s almost akin to Essentialism.

Some people are afraid to do that, because in their minds … if you analyze your calendar and time spent and you’re really not that busy, that means you lose some value or worth. That shouldn’t be the case, but it’s how we think. I think that way a lot too, especially when I really have nothing to do at work.

What do you think: is habit formation an important thing to consider? And can you be honest with yourself about how busy you are?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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