Trying to Break a Bad Habit? Ask Yourself These Questions First

Presented by Columbia Business School

change your habits

Trying to break a bad habit or build a new one? Ask yourself these questions first.

Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before and The Happiness Project, explains why relying on what worked for someone else when trying to change a habit is unlikely to work.


So, one of the big questions is: “Why is it so hard to shape our habits?” And I think one of the main reasons is that people often go about it the wrong way for them.columbia-business-school

There’s no one right way to form a habit. People will often say, “what are the seven habits of the most successful people?” or “if you want to get something done, do it first thing in the morning,” or “start small,” or “give yourself a cheat day,” “do it for 21 days.” And these are all strategies that can work for some people but they don’t work for everyone. And I think a lot of the time when people are frustrated because they tried and failed to change a habit — maybe even year, after year, after year — is because they haven’t gone about it in the way that’s right for them.

So, for instance, there really are morning people and night people. Research shows it’s largely genetically determined and a function of age. But many people are told that they should get up and exercise first thing in the day. And there are all kinds of reasons on paper why that makes sense. And it would work for me because I’m a morning person. But if you’re a night person, you’re going to be at your most productive and energetic and creative later in the day. And the idea that you’re going to get up early and go for a run when you can barely stagger out of your house in order to get to school or work, it’s just not realistic. You’re setting yourself up for failure.

So, I think a lot of times when people find it very hard to change a habit, it’s because they’re trying to fit themselves into some model — “this is what Steve Jobs did,” “this is what my sister-in-law did,” “this is what I should be able to do” — instead of really saying to themselves, “what works for me?”

And what I found when I looked at it: there are 21 different strategies that people can use to make or break their habits. And sometimes people kind of freak out; they think 21 is too many. They want three. They want five. But it’s good that there are 21 because some of these work for some people, but not other people. Some of these are available to us at some times in our lives, but not in other times of our lives.

So, it’s good to know all your options, and it would be very typical that if you’re trying to change a challenging habit, you might use five, six, seven strategies all at the same time, to try to help lock that habit into place.

So, it’s good that there are so many strategies but the strategies that work for me are not going to necessarily be the strategies that work for you. We have to say: “What is true for me? When have I succeeded in the past? What kind of person am I? What kind of strategies are going to set me up for success?” Because if I try to do it in the way that worked for somebody else, you know, it’s just like, maybe it will work, maybe it won’t work. It’s not that you don’t have self-control, it’s not that you’re weak, it’s just that you tried to do it in a way that wasn’t right for you.

As I’ve studied kind of habits, happiness, human nature, the one thing that has become clearer and clearer to me is that in the end we can only build a happy, healthy, productive, creative life on the foundation of our own nature. We really have to know “Who am I? What kind of person am I? What am I interested in? What are my values? What’s my temperament?” And that, when we try to fit ourselves into someone else’s conception of what we should be — “everybody loves to go skiing,” “everybody loves shopping,” “everybody loves to drink wine,” “everybody likes to do crossword puzzles” — do they? Nothing is inherently fun. Nothing is inherently right. It’s whatever is right for us.

And over and over I see that, once people see that it’s not that there’s a right way and a wrong way. It’s not that I’m right and you’re wrong or visa versa. It’s just what works for me. And a good question to ask is: “What succeeded for me in the past? Was there a time when I kept this habit easily? Was there a time when I felt really happy and energetic? What was different?” Because that will often provide a clue as something that we could recreate in our current environment.

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