The 21 Strategies for Habit Change
Do you want to make a significant change in your life? Or help someone else to make an important change?
Often, this means changing a habit (get more sleep, quit sugar, exercise regularly, spend more time in nature, put down devices). Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life—research suggests that about 40% of our existence is shaped by our habits.
In her book Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin identifies the 21 strategies that we can use to make or break our habits.
1. The Four Tendencies
To change your habits, you have to know yourself, and in particular, your Tendency—that is, whether you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.
All of us face both outer expectations (meet a work deadline) and inner expectations (keep a New Year’s resolution). Your Tendency describes how you respond to those expectations.
- Upholders respond readily to both outer and inner expectations. They work hard to meet others’ expectations—and their expectations for themselves.
- Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified by reason, logic, and fairness; they follow only inner expectations.
- Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. They keep their promises to others, but have difficulty keeping their promises to themselves. They respond to external accountability.
- Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They choose to act from a sense of choice, identity, or freedom. They resist being told what to do; often, they don’t even like to tell themselves what to do.
When we try to form a new habit, we set an expectation for ourselves, so understanding our Tendency allows us to choose the strategies that will work for us. For instance, accountability is a crucial strategy for Obligers, but for Rebels, it can be counter-productive.
By taking into account various aspects of our nature related to habit formation, we can avoid wasting energy, time, or money. For example, are you a morning person or night person? An over-buyer or under-buyer? Do you prefer familiarity or novelty; competition or collaboration? Considering such distinctions will help you establish habits in the ways that best suit you.
We manage what we monitor. Keeping close track of our actions means we do better in categories such as eating, drinking, exercising, working, TV and Internet use, spending—and just about anything else. A key step for the Strategy of Monitoring is to identify precisely what action is monitored.
First things first. Certain habits serve as the foundation for other habits, because they keep us from getting too physically taxed or mentally frazzled, and then, because we have more energy and self-control, we follow other healthy habits more easily. We can strengthen our foundation by getting enough sleep; eating and drinking right; exercising; and un-cluttering.
For many people, if it’s on the calendar, it happens. Habits grow strongest and fastest when they’re repeated in predictable ways, and for most of us, putting an activity on the schedule tends to lock us into doing it. Scheduling an activity also protects that time from interference.
Many people do better when they know someone’s watching. For Obligers, most of all, external accountability is absolutely essential.
7. First Steps
It’s enough to begin; if you’re ready, begin now. And while starting is hard, starting over is often harder; once started, try not to stop. Don’t break the chain!
8. Clean Slate
When we go through a big transition, old habits get wiped away, and with that clean slate, new habits form more easily. For this reason, a great time to tackle a new habit is when starting a new job, a new relationship, or a new home. Many people also use the New Year, a birthday, or an important milestone as a clean slate. When facing a clean slate, remember that temporary becomes permanent, so we should start the way we want to continue.
9. Lightning Bolt
Once in a while, we encounter some new idea, new information, or a new role—and suddenly, effortlessly, a new habit replaces a well-established habit. This strategy is enormously powerful, but hard to invoke on command. Examples might include: a documentary or book, a diagnosis, an accident, a conversation with a stranger, parenthood.
When facing a strong temptation, “Abstainers” do better when they abstain altogether, while “Moderators” do better when they indulge in temptation sometimes, or a little. For Abstainers, it’s much more difficult to indulge in moderation than to give something up; for Moderators, it’s harder to abstain.
To a truly remarkable extent, we’re more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and less likely if it’s not. The amount of effort, time, or decision-making required by an action has a huge influence on our habits. Make it easy to do right and hard to go wrong. Likewise...
We’re less likely to take an action if it’s inconvenient. The harder it is to indulge in a bad habit, the harder it is to do it impulsively. To weaken a bad habit, make it as inconvenient as possible.
Plan to fail. Try to anticipate and minimize temptation, both in your environment and in your own mind. Use “if-then” planning to prepare for challenges that might arise: “If it’s raining, then I will exercise by following an online cardio video.”
We often seek justifications to excuse ourselves from a good habit...just this once. By identifying the loopholes we most often invoke, we can guard against them.
- False choice loophole: “I can’t do this, because I’m so busy doing that."
- Moral licensing loophole: “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this.”
- Tomorrow loophole: “It’s okay to skip today, because I’m going to do this tomorrow.”
- Lack of control loophole: “I can’t help myself.”
- Planning to fail loophole: "I’m doing this for no particular reason, but now that I’m here, I can’t resist."
- “This doesn’t count” loophole: “It's a holiday!”
- Questionable assumption loophole: "I’m so far behind, there’s no point in starting."
- Concern for others loophole: "If I don’t do this, someone will be hurt or inconvenienced"
- Fake self-actualization loophole: “You only live once!"
- One-coin loophole: "What difference will this one action make?"
When we’re tempted to break a good habit, we deliberately shift our attention away from unwelcome thoughts by finding healthy distractions.
External rewards can actually undermine habit formation. The best reward for a good habit is the good habit itself.
Unlike a reward, which must be earned or justified, a “treat” is a small pleasure or indulgence that we give to ourselves just because we want it. It’s easier to ask more of ourselves when we’re giving more to ourselves, so so it’s helpful to identify plenty of healthy treats.
Only do X when you’re doing Y. Pair two activities: one that you need to or want to do, and one that you don’t particularly want to do, and always do them together.
The more clearly we identify the habit we intend to follow, the more likely we are to stick to it. Frame a habit to be concrete, manageable, and measurable.
Our habits reflect your identity, so if you struggle to change a particular habit, re-think your identity. Every identity—athlete, artist, environmentalist, reliable parent, strong leader—carries certain habits with it.
21. Other People
Your habits rub off on other people, and their habits rub off on you. Associate with people who follow the habits you want to adopt.
Some strategies work very well for some people, and not for others, and some strategies are available to us at some times in our lives, but not at other times. There is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution to changing habits. It turns out that it’s not that hard to change your habits—when you do it in the way that’s right for you.