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 says 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, 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,” says 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 says. “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 says. “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.