Gretchen Rubin is the author of several books, including the blockbuster New York Times bestsellers, Better Than Before, The Happiness Project and Happier at Home.
In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, she provides surprising insights and practical advice drawn from cutting-edge research, ancient wisdom, and her own observations, about how we can make our lives better than before.
She investigates the multiple strategies she’s identified that help us make and break our habits. After all, habits are the invisible architecture of a happy life, and when we change our habits, we change our lives. The secret to changing a habit? First, we must know ourselves, so we can suit our habits to our own nature.
It was Rubin’s longstanding interest in happiness that led her to the study of habits, because when she talked to people about their happiness challenges, they often pointed to a habit that they couldn’t make or break. This pattern made her ask, “When and why can people successfully change a habit—or not?”
Her previous books include the #1 New York Times and international bestseller, The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. The Happiness Project has sold more than one million copies, has been published in more than thirty languages, and spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list.
In her New York Times bestseller Happier at Home, Rubin explores how to make home a happier place, by concentrating on the factors that matter most for home, such as possessions, marriage, time, parenthood, body, neighborhood.
On Gretchen Rubin’s popular blog, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness and habits. Millions of people read her blog each year. “I’ve become a bit of a happiness bully,” she confessed.
On her weekly podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin, she discusses good habits and happiness with her sister Elizabeth Craft. The podcat hit #6 on iTunes on the first day it launched.
With her work, Rubin has emerged as one of the most thought-provoking and influential writers on habits and happiness to have emerged from the recent explosion of interest in these subjects. Though her conclusions are sometimes counter-intuitive—for example, she finds that rewards play a very tricky role in the formation of habits, and true simplicity is far from simple to attain, and that used rightly, money can do a lot to buy happiness—her insights resonate with readers of all backgrounds. She’s known for her ability to distill and convey complex ideas in a way that’s accessible to a wide range of readers.
Response to Rubin’s writing has been overwhelming. Dozens of blogs have been launched by people following Gretchen’s example. Psychiatrists tell their patients to read her books, professors assign them to their students, book groups discuss them, families pass them around, and people do Habits and Happiness Projects together. Exhausted parents and college students, senior citizens and professionals, clergy and social workers, people facing divorce, illness, and drift have written to tell her how she’s influenced them.
In the New York Times Book Review, Rubin was described as “the queen of the self-help memoir.” “It’s great to be called the queen, but I’d say my work is ‘self-helpful,’ not ‘self-help.’” Rubin explained. She added, “Really, I’m a moral essayist, but that sounds so dull.”
Rubin is much in demand as a speaker, and she has addressed corporate audiences at places such as GE, Google, LinkedIn, Accenture, Procter & Gamble, as well as university audiences such as Yale Law School, Harvard Business School, and Wharton.
She has appeared at numerous conferences as a featured speaker or keynoter, at places such as SXSW, World Domination Summit, the 92nd< Street Y, 5×15, TEDx, BlogHer, the Atlantic, Alt Design, Q Cities, Behance’s 99u, Mom 2.0, West Point, Lucid, and the Texas, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania Conferences for Women.
She makes frequent TV appearances, for instance, on Today, Kathie Lee & Hoda, CBS Sunday Morning, The Early Show, Katie, “Q” radio, Booknotes with Brian Lamb, and “NPR’s Weekend Edition.” “The Happiness Project” was even an answer on the game-show Jeopardy!
Rubin, an enthusiastic proponent of using technology to engage with readers about ideas, has a wide, active following on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube (more than 2.3 million views)—not to mention her wildly popular monthly newsletter, book club, and daily email of quotations. Rubin is a notable example of an author using a blog and social media to create discussion around a subject and her work.
Rubin was one of the first people asked to become a LinkedIn “Influencer,” where she has an enormous, active group of followers. She was named one of the “100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness,” one of the Inc.’s Top 50 Leadership and Management Experts, and one of the “22 Brilliant Thinkers Everyone Should Follow on Twitter” by Business Insider.
In traditional media, Rubin has written for many national publications, and was columnist in Good Housekeeping magazine. She appeared on the inaugural cover of Live Happy magazine, February 2014, and she appeared on the cover of Parade magazine.
A graduate of Yale and Yale Law School, where she was Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Law Journal and winner of the Edgar M. Cullen Prize, Rubin started her career in law. She clerked for Judge Pierre Leval and was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she realized she really wanted to be a writer.
Her bestselling Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK are succinct, provocative biographies. Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide is biting social criticism in the form of a user’s manual. Profane Waste, a collaboration with artist Dana Hoey, examines the question of why owners choose to destroy their own possessions. She also has three terrible novels safely locked in a desk drawer.
Rubin is a well-known lover of children’s and young-adult literature (she’s in three children’s literature reading groups; an advocate for organ donation; a member of the Council on Foreign Relations; and a massive consumer of caffeine. The New York Times described her as “the queen of the self-help memoir” (though she describes her books as “self-helpful, not self-help.”) She’s left-handed, red-haired, extremely near-sighted, and a low-carb eater. Of everything she’s ever written, she says, her one-minute video, The Years Are Short, resonates most with people.
Raised in Kansas City, she lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters.
Zephan: Hey, everyone, and welcome to the Year of Purpose podcast. This is Zephan Blaxberg and today I have Gretchen Rubin. Now Gretchen is one of the most thought provoking and influential writers on habits and happiness. Her next book, Better Than Before, is about how we change our habits. Her books, The Happiness Project and Happier At Home, were both instant New York Times best sellers, and the Happiness Project spend more than two years on the best seller list, including at number one. Her books have sold more than two million copies in thirty different languages.
On her blog, she writes about her adventures as she test drives ideas from contemporary science and ancient wisdom about building good habits and a happier life. Gretchen, how are you doing today?
Gretchen: I’m very happy to be talking to you!
Zephan: Well, thank you so much for spending some time with me today. You know, I stumbled upon you when I found the Happiness Project. There’s a Facebook page, I found it while I was looking at ways that I could become happier. Because, in truth, everyone’s looking to be happier. This is something that is not original, is nothing new. This is something that’s been happening for quite some time now, and so I looked online to see what was out there, and I found this thing for the Happiness Project. Now I realize that it’s more than just a book, you wrote a book that was on the best seller list for two years, but now it’s kind of turned into a bit of a movement called the Happiness Project. So could you maybe tell us a little bit about what the Happiness Project is and how it’s progressed?
Gretchen: Yeah. Well, I was a writer, I was just finishing up my biography of JFK, and I was stuck on a city bus in the pouring rain, and I had one of those rare opportunities for reflection that you don’t often get in the tunnel of everyday life. And I though “Well what do I want from life anyway?” and I thought “I want to be happy.” But I realize I didn’t spend any time thinking about whether I was happy or whether I could be happier.
And as often happens with me, I become obsessed with the idea and want to do a huge amount of research, so I ran to the library the next day and got this giant stack of books and started researching happiness. And before too long, I realized that I was just a deep, rich subject that I didn’t want to do it for myself on my own while I was—you know, kind of as a hobby project. I really wanted it to be my next book. And so I decided that I would really spend a year and think about everything that I wanted. Tried to learn about happiness, whether we can make ourselves happy or how we can make ourselves happier, and then try it out and see if I really did all that stuff, if I tried it, would I be happier?
And as part of it, one of the things I needed to try was novelty and challenge for happiness. This is something that all the happiness researchers will tell you. I have to say, in my case, I thought “No, I like familiarity and mastery so I don’t think novelty and challenge are gonna be important for me.” But to test that, I decided to start a blog. And so, as part of writing a book, I also started a blog, so now I have this blog that I’ve had for eight or nine years all about happiness and habits and human nature, as well as the books that I’ve been writing on those subjects.
Zephan: So, often times, when I comes to being happy, I found—and maybe you found this too—that we aren’t being present. We aren’t really being there in the moment to experience what there happening. We’re always on this mindset of go, go, go. One thing, the next thing, the next thing. You know, wash, rinse, repeat, and we forget to stop and smell the roses so to speak. We forget to take a moment, take everything in and kind of just evaluated where we are. You know, in our day, in our life, in our year, and in that specific moment. So do you think that we’re losing sight of happiness because we’re not being present there in the moment?
Gretchen: Well, that’s a very interesting question, and I think you put your finger right on it, which is it’s kind of this idea of mindfulness, of even stopping and asking yourself the question “Am I as happy as I can be?” And it’s funny because there’s this whole theme within happiness, and it’s like people like…you know, David Hume and Eleanor Roosevelt—all these very estimable people—who say, basically, if you try to make yourself happier, you won’t be. You’ll get in your own way. I think David Hume said “Ask yourself if you are happy and you shall cease to be so.” Or he says happiness is a side effect. It’s not something you should aim for.
But really, in my view, you don’t hit a target by not aiming at it or not thinking about it, but really by asking yourself “Am I as happy as I can be? What can I do to be happier?” you really make it much more likely that you are gonna bring about those changes. Like the kind of changes you made to make yourself happier. And then sometimes people will be like “Well I don’t want to make myself happier, I want to live a life full of meaning and engagement with other people and have fulfilling work.” I’m like, “well yeah, that’s exactly what you would do if you wanted to be happier!”
So I think that the just stopping and saying to ourselves “What’s going on here? Does my life reflect my interests, my values, my nature? Are the things I can do to make myself happier?” I think for most people, there’s some low hanging fruit that doesn’t take that much time, energy, and money, and really can make a big difference.
Zephan: So happiness can come from these small things. Like you said, from the low hanging fruit. You know, I personally found happiness through rowing. This was something I never thought in a million years I would see myself doing. My only memory of actually enjoying being on the water was when I was on a boat on the lake at our vacation house with my dad and our family on our vacations. But other than that, I’d think back to being on our fishing trips and getting sick and nauseas and seasick. So there’s these little things that we can find throughout our lives. For many of us, actually, it’s fitness, from the runners to the lifters to, now, my passion which is rowing. We can find these little low hanging fruit type things that we can do.
And, you know, that kind of makes me wonder, is happiness something that’s maybe simpler than we’re making it out to be? So my question to you is are we over complicating this? Is happiness something that is actually fairly simple and we’re just forcing it?
Gretchen: Hmm, is it simpler than the make it out to be…
Zephan: Like, for example, one of the things that I found it so many people are like “I need more money. I need more money. I need more clients, more work, more this, more that.” And that’s been such a huge thing for them that they focused on what they’re lacking. They focused on this thing that they don’t have, so they’re putting this negative vibe out into the world of they need something. And so people can kind of sense that and they stay away from it. So I just wonder, you know, is it something where it’s simpler than we’re trying to make it out to be?
Gretchen: You know, it’s interesting, there’s this study that I read and I keep meaning to look back at it to refresh my recollection of what exactly it said. But as I recall, what the study did is it asked people what’s more important to you about work. And it turned out that money was not in the top three or four. It was there, like in the top ten, but it wasn’t at the top. But then when they said “What do you think other people value most about work?” they said other people value money. I think that we tend to think that other people value money more than they do. I think that in—my sense is that most people kinda get it. That just having more money, just having cash in their pocket is not gonna make them happy, and that people get the idea that it’s how you spend it and it’s the decisions that you make.
Now that doesn’t mean that they’re doing that. it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily following that and spending their money wisely in the way that are gonna have the biggest happiness bang for their buck, but I do think that—I don’t think there are many people that think that simply making more money, past a certain point—a certain level, is gonna make them happier.
Now, of course, one of the greatest luxuries that money can buy is the freedom not to have to worry about money. And money, I think, is something like health where we tend to—we experience it much more in the negative than in the positive. So if you don’t have enough money, then you’re very concerned about that and it’s a big, big worry and it’s a big negative. Then once you sort of have enough, then the other things begin to matter and you sort of see decisions with money matter more. Like are you spending your money on a new bicycle or on cocaine? You know, that’s gonna make a difference in your long term happiness.
So, yeah—so I think all these things are kind of—that we need to think about them because they play out in how we make the decisions that’ll effect our happiness.
Zephan: Interesting. So do you think that there’s any obstacles that are actually preventing us from being happy in our life?
Gretchen: You know, I think one of the biggest obstacles is loneliness. And if I could say that something should be studied more or addressed more, I think it would be loneliness. Because one the things that comes up most often when I’m talking to people is, like, “What do you do if you’re in your thirties and you move for your job to a place where you don’t know anybody and you don’t have any family? How do you make friends?” or for a lot of people—so it’s harder to make friends. People are really busy with a bunch of different things so it’s hard to maintain relationships. Like you have these friends but you feel like you’re not maintaining them, you know, because friendship takes time. It takes time and energy.
Or, you know, sometimes people have a very active social circle, but they’re missing a romantic partner. And for many people, they want both of those elements of relationships. They want that one intimate partner, like that quiet presence in the house, somebody who’s just, you know, with you, as well as the lively social scene. Not everybody needs that, but for some people, that’s a real source of concern as well.
And so I think that that’s—and if you look at—ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree, if you had to pick the one thing for happiness, that would be relationships. We need to have strong, enduring, intimate relationships. We have to feel like we belong. We need to be able to confide. We need to be able to give and get support. And when you look at the people who are happier, they tend to be people who have more strong relationships. And so I think that loneliness or feeling so busy that you can’t maintain a close—a meaningful relationship with the people in your life, I think that that is a big stumbling block.
Zephan: So there’s this connection of being lonely and being happy here. And actually, something that I read recently that I’ve been learning a little more about is a lot of researchers are saying that the reason why people have this urge to text while they’re driving is because it’s the time when we’re alone, it’s the time that we’re without people, without interaction, and so more and more people are texting while driving rather than any other place. Or they’re more tempted to text while driving because they are alone. They’re in this little bubble for their commute to work or their commute to wherever they’re going. So it’s more than just going from the house to the grocery store, they’re texting because they’re on this long-haul and they’re lonely.
Gretchen: Well it’s interesting that you say that because one of the things—I mean, you have a podcast so I’d be curious if you have the same experience, but my sister and I just started a new podcast called Happier with Gretchen Rubin and it’s tons of fun. And one of my goals for all of my happiness is to spend more time with my sister because she’s one of the most important relationships in my life. I live in New York City, she lives in LA, we’re both super busy, and with the time change and the distance, it’s hard. So it’s great to have something we work on together.
But one of the things that’s really struck me, and I wonder if you’ve experienced this, is many people, when they’re talking to me with the podcast, they will say it’s like having a new friend. “I listen to you in the car.” “I listen to you when I’m walking and it’s like hanging out with a friend.” And I never thought about, well maybe it is kind of like—it is something that’s—like somebody’s talking inside your head and you’re participating with somebody’s conversation.
And so it’s not exactly like having a friend but maybe it’s sort of in that vein of wanting connection and wanting to draw closer to people. Especially in some place like a car where you’re kind of trapped and maybe you don’t—there’s not that much going on of high value, so if you could do something that’s interesting and fun and kind of gives you that feeling of engagement. That’s it—I wonder if that’s related, that’s interesting. I don’t know if you’ve experienced that with podcast, but people say they kind of feel connected to you in some way. Because my sister and I have definitely noticed how often people commented like that.
Zephan: Yeah, I mean, I’ve definitely found that when I’m in the car listening to a podcast, I actually respond as if that person were there with me. So if they say something that I resonate with, I might smile. I they say something that I think is funny, I’ll laugh out loud. And I’m alone. And it’s so neat to see how I respond almost in the same way that you would if someone were right there next to you, you know. And so it’s kind of like you’re not lonely anymore. You actually get to have someone there with you.
So if you’re listening to the podcast right now in the car, first of all, kudos to you for not text and driving and doing something much more productive. But I’m here with you and so is Gretchen! So it’s great that you don’t have to be alone right now.
Gretchen: Yeah. So that’s better than texting. That’s probably a lot safe than texting while you’re driving, which is pretty much the worst idea. If there’s any habit that no one should have, it’s the habit of texting while they’re driving. So, yeah, that’s not good.
Zephan: Well, we can only hope that with all the technology that we have right now, maybe one day in the future, our phones will realize that they are flying through the air at sixty miles an hour and they’ll disable that ability to text, because that would be an important safety feature that I’m surprised isn’t in them right now, especially considering that they can already track how far we’re running and how many steps we take in a day.
But yeah, so what I really wanted to get into was, you know, you kind of started this movement out of the happiness project. Tell me what happened there. How did it go from being just a book to being something that was making a huge impact across the entire country, and if not the world?
Gretchen: You know, it’s interesting—I mean, I think—it’s something because when I was writing the book or talking to people, just people around me, people that I knew, they have sort of two reactions. One was “Well the story of your happiness project is not gonna be interesting because you’re so ordinary. You’re so boring that no one would be interested.” They would say that in a loving way, but that was basically it. And the other people would say “You’re so idiosyncratic no one is ever gonna identify with you.” And so there was sort of this feeling of no one’s gonna—it’s not gonna strike a chord with anyone.
But what I found out, and I think this is so interesting and it’s just about human nature, is that often—you’d think you would learn more about happiness or good habits or something if you were reading about, you know, big scientific studies that looked at large populations. Or philosophical treatises that looked at human nature. But, in fact, I think people most respond to someone else’s story.
And I know that when I was thinking about my own happiness project and who I learned from or what I learned from, the sources that I learned from first were the people around me, especially when I was writing my habits book, Better Than Before. I found it so instructive just to talk to people about their experiences. Or also other people’s memoirs or their own accounts. So someone like Benjamin Franklin or Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s extraordinarily influential to me memoir called Story of a Soul. One person’s story taught me more about myself that just about anything else.
And I think that there was something about the happiness project where I wasn’t coming from a place of deep unhappiness, not that much changed in my life, and yet I think I was somehow able to present information—most of which was not that surprising to anybody. I think with happiness most of us need to be reminded more than informed about the things that will make us happier. But I think that kind of hearing what I did suggested to people the kind of thing they could do. So it’s like “Gretchen’s really into reading so she started a book group. Well, I’m not into reading but I could go bike with friends every Saturday.” Like you get the point, or you figure—you see enough of yourself that you can think about “Well in this way, I’m like her. In this way, I’m not like her. This is what I would do.”
And so I think that’s why it sort of took off with other people. Was this idea that if I really sat down and think about the things that are most important to me and the very specific, concrete, manageable things I could do as part of my everyday life, these are the things that I could do. And some of them are really small—like one of the ones that people mention to me all the time is—which I wrote about in my book Happier At Home, which is all about happiness specifically at home—was to give warm hellos and goodbyes.
So in our household, every time someone comes or goes, they get a real hello, meaning everybody comes to them and really speaks to them and hugs or kisses them or whatever. And I started this because we were getting in a really bad habit of people just sort of grunting out “ehh!” from across the room and not really paying attention when people came and went from the apartment, and I really did not like that. I wanted to have a more tender, attentive atmosphere in our household. So we all talked about it—usually I don’t have group habits that people follow, but in this case we all agreed—and it’s made a tremendous difference in the atmosphere of our household just in terms of just the feeling of lovingness and connection.
And so I think it’s like—but that doesn’t take a lot of time, energy, or money. I think a lot of people are like “Yeah, I could do that. My family, we could totally do that!” and then they do it and then they’re happier. So I think that’s why it sort of caught on.
Zephan: You are absolutely right. I see this happen all the time where I’m leaving the house or I see it at someone else’s house and it’s just like “Alright, see you later, get out of here.” There’s no real interaction there. And I think that we could also obtain so much more gratitude and be so much more present and in the moment if we were doing this. So thank you so much for adding that to my list of things that I could improve upon, and I’m sure many of our listeners will take that back to our homes and want to use that too.
Now, you’ve got this other book out there now, and it’s called Better Than Before, and it’s all about how we change our habits, right?
Gretchen: Yep, and specifically how you can change your habits. Because for a lot of people, that’s a big happiness challenge. Is some habit that they can’t master.
Zephan: So you had a little bit of a story about how your previous book had come about. You know, you were sitting on a bus during that rainy day. Do you have a specific moment in time where, you know, Better Than Before just kind of came to you and the idea just kind of popped into your head?
Gretchen: Well, it sort of came on me gradually because I noticed that whenever I talked to people about happiness, whenever they were talking about a big happiness boost, or even a big happiness challenge that they were facing, they very often pointed to something that at its core was a habit issue. Like “Oh my problem is that I’m exhausted all the time.” Well that’s really about the habit of getting enough sleep.
So I was getting interested, more and more drawn into the subject of habits and kind of the related issues of willpower and self-control and procrastination, that kind of thing. And then I had lunch with a friend and she said something that got me obsessed with habits. And this was when I was like “I HAVE to crack the riddle of habits.” And what she said to me, because I was asking her about her habits, and she was like “Well, this is the thing, I know I would be happier if I had the habit of exercising. And what’s weird is when I was in high school, I was on the track team and I never missed track practice, but I can’t go running now. Why?” and I thought “Well, why??” because it’s the same person, it’s the same behavior. At one time it was effortless, now she can’t do it. What is going on with her habits?
And so with that, I became just—you know, that was all I could think about, was habits and wanting to really come up with a framework that would explain everything that I saw on habits. Because often the experts will sort of say one thing like “Oh, you should do it first thing in the morning!” “You should start small!” “You should do it for thirty days!” or “Give yourself a cheat day, that’s what’s gonna work.” and it’s like…well…that’s not wrong, but that works for some people some of the time in some situations. Like I wanted to come up with a—I wanted to account for everything that I saw in habits, and so that’s when I because determined to write Better Than Before.
Zephan: And you brought up a really good point there about how, you know, creating these habits aren’t exactly easy. So why do we find it so tough to create a habit for something that we love to do? You know, maybe it’s your passion but for whatever reason it seems really complicated.
Gretchen: Well I think, in the case of my friend, I think there’s a couple different answers for that. But one of the things that I discovered in the course of writing the book is that really—I came up with a framework that divides everybody into one of four categories in terms of how they respond to expectations, and a habit is a kind of expectation. Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. And there’s a quiz on my site, if anybody wants to take a quiz. But the biggest tendency and the one that’s my friend is that for Obligers, they readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations.
So for my friend, when she had a coach and a team, she had no trouble showing up. But when it was only her own inner expectation for herself, it was very hard for her to follow through. And so that describes you, because this is the biggest tendency. Most people—bigger—the most number of people fall into this tendency. If there’s something that you really love and yet you find that you never are following through with it, give yourself external accountability. For instance, a friend of mine was like “I love to read but I never make time to read, why is that?” Well then she joined a book group where you’re really expected to read the book. And she reads.
Or I was talking to the two people who were both Obligers who were like “What’s the problem? Because we both love to cook, and we really want to bring home cooked meals to work every day because we’re eating all this junk food and it’s expensive and it’s not good for us. And yet why is it that even though we cook and even though we’re committed to the idea of healthy food, we just never do it and we just keep ordering in every day?” Well so what they did—because Obligers need external accountability—they decided they would divide the time in half. Half the time one of them cooked, half the time the other one of them cooked. And so, if it’s your turn to cook, you have to cook or the other person can’t eat, and you have to eat what the person cooks for you because they made you lunch.
And so, again, it’s this sense of external accountability. And so I have to say, with everything in the book, this is an idea that for many people has been huge. You don’t have to worry about priorities, you don’t have to worry about motivation, you don’t have to worry about sacrifice. If you have trouble following through on something that’s important to you, give yourself external accountability. And on my site, I have a starter kit for people, if you want to start a group for people holding each other accountable.
Because that’s one—you know, think about AA or Weight Watchers. When a group comes together, they don’t even have to be working on the same habits, but it’s just the idea that you know that someone’s gonna be like “Hey, you said you were gonna spend more time learning how to play guitar. Have you been practicing guitar? Have you been taking—you said you were gonna do it for a half an hour every night, how’s that going?” Knowing that you have that external accountability, for many people, is really the crucial thing that’s gonna allow them to stick to it. Because just the fact that you love something doesn’t mean that it’s gonna happen. And you need to figure out why something’s not happening so you can bring about circumstances that will allow it to actually happen.
Zephan: Now with how important these habits are to our lives, do you have any recommendation as far as, you know, a basic foundation or basic pillar of what we should be doing, what habits we should be forming or maybe what habits we should be focusing more on? You know, we have Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, things like food, water, shelter, things that we need as basics, but are there any particular habits that we need to have as a foundation to make ourselves better?
Gretchen: Yes. Absolutely. And so in the book, I talk about the 21 strategies that people use to make or break habits, and it’s the same strategies whether you’re making them or breaking them, so that doesn’t matter. And all of them are really powerful, and the one you’re pointing to is what I call the strategy of foundation. Which is that there’s certain areas of behavior that go directly to self-mastery. And when you’re trying to give yourself a good habit, you need to use self-mastery. Eventually, you’ll have it as a behavior to go on autopilot, which is excellent, but until you get that cemented in, you have to use your self-mastery.
And in general, we want lots of self-mastery. You want as much self-mastery as you can have, generally, because that’s what allows you to do the things that you want to do and not do the things you don’t want to do.
So four areas of behavior go directly to self-mastery, and so there, they kind of have special priority. Like if you’re gonna work on anything, or you’re gonna try to start somewhere, these are the places to think about starting first, because they’re gonna make it easier to do anything else you want to do.
One area to think about is eating and drinking. Now, weirdly, one reason that people overeat is that they don’t eat enough. You know, you skipped breakfast, you skipped lunch, then you’re so hungry that you’re just grabbing anything, any junk food you can because you can’t—you’re not—you have to eat right—you have to be satisfied in order to have that self-mastery. And drinking, I mean, I think we all get it. Part of the fun of drinking is that it lowers inhibitions, and so if you’re drinking, it’s gonna be harder to stick to your good habits.
Next: sleep. If you’re exhausted, it’s very hard to use your self-mastery. And this is when you get into people who are exhausted, they’re getting by on four hours of sleep every night and then they’re standing there at midnight in front of the freezer, eating an entire pint of ice cream to try to recharge their battery. Most adults need seven hours. It’s really important to get your sleep.
Moving around. You don’t need to train for the marathon, but it’s really—people often think they’re too tired to exercise, but exercise actually does boost energy and self-mastery. It doesn’t deplete it. And so you want to be up and moving around as much as you can.
And then one thing that surprised me—I think those are all pretty obvious, but this surprised me. For most people, kind of more than you would expect, outer order contributes to inner calm and a sense of inner self-command. There’s something—and I—it’s kind of disproportionate effect that many people—and I certainly feel this way myself—feel like if they throw away their junk, if they put things in their proper paces, if they get rid of things that they don’t use or they don’t love, if they clear off surfaces, if they make room in closets and shelves, that they just feel more in control of themselves.
A friend of mine said “I finally cleaned my fridge and now I know I can switch careers!” and I knew exactly what that felt like. And so those are the four areas I would say if you’re gonna start anywhere, start with how it’s related to those behaviors because that’s likely gonna make it easier to do anything else that you want to do.
Zephan: So start with those basic foundations, and I’m sure that it’ll expand out into all the aspects of your life.
Well, you mentioned some really great resources here that are on your website. Do you mind just sharing with the listeners and the viewers what the URL is for that, and also how they can check out your podcast and stay in touch with you?
Gretchen: Yeah, absolutely. My site is called gretchenrubin.com, just my name. gretchenrubin.com. And then the resources section, I have all kinds of discussion guides and downloads for changing your habits, creating your own happiness project, starting groups, all kind of things that are meant to make it easier for you to do a happiness project or to tackle your habits.
And my new podcast, which I’m loving, is called Happier with Gretchen Rubin, and I do that once a week for twenty-five minutes with my sister, who’s a TV writer living in LA, and so… We’re sisters so we don’t let each other get away with much and we talk about the science, the philosophy, pop culture, and our own experiences about habits and happiness.
And—and yeah, this new book, I’m very excited about. Better Than Before is really all about this issue of habits because habits, it turns out, are about forty percent of our daily life. So if we have habits that work for us, we’re just much more likely to be happier, healthier, and more productive. And if your habits don’t work for you then that is just gonna be a much bigger challenge. So I think it’s worth taking the time to focus on habits, bring that mindfulness that you were talking about for a happy life, also, to your habits. It’s always mindfulness. Everything comes down to mindfulness in the end, it’s all about mindfulness.
Zephan: So mindfulness leading to creating better habits leading to a happier life! I love it! Thank you so much for spending some time with me here today. It’s been great speak with you. And, you know, for everyone listening in, definitely check out Gretchen’s books. The new one is called Better Than Before, and she also has the Happiness Project and Happier At Home, and we’ll be sure to link to those books on the website at www.yearofpurpose.com.
Gretchen, thank you so much for being here today, and we will talk to you soon!
Gretchen: Thank you. Great to talk to you.