Gretchen Rubin's secrets for breaking bad habits

The happiness guru sets her sights on self-improvement through good habits in Better Than Before.

Gretchen Rubin Force of Habit

Illustration, CSA Images/Getty Images.

In 2009, Gretchen Rubin published The Happiness Project, her bestselling account of a year-long process to bring more joy into her life. Now, in Better Than Before, she applies the same methodical approach to our collective quest to adopt positive habits. She divides people into four groups — Upholders, driven to meet all expectations; Questioners, who com-­plete only tasks that serve a rational purpose; Obligers, loath to disappoint others but also to self-motivate; and Rebels, who resist authority — and offers strategies for each personality type. As she makes her way through her own self-improvement checklist, Rubin provides a revealing look at why positive changes stump some of us yet seem to come so easily to others.

You’ve made your name as a happiness expert. Why move to habits?

When people talked about their happiness challenges, they’d often focus on a habit. A friend said to me, “I want to exercise. I know it would make me feel a lot happier. When I was in high school, I was on the track team and I never missed practice, but somehow I can’t do it now.” To me, this was such a powerful question: Why had she been able to [practise this habit] faithfully in the past and now couldn’t do it? I had to figure it out.

What surprised you while writing this book?

I discovered that, though I thought I was very typical, I’m actually a very extreme personality. Which came as a shock to no one  except me!

Though you propose many strategies, you stress that repetition and consistency are key to habit formation. But where’s the line between adopting good habits and developing a compulsion?

Any medicine can become poison. For different people, those lines are in different places. In the past few years, one of my best friends has skipped going to the gym maybe six times. A lot of people [would call that] crazy, but I know her, and it doesn’t seem crazy to me. Mark Griffiths [a British professor in the field of addictions] said that “healthy enthusiasms add to life, whereas addictions take away from it.”

What’s the best advice you can offer someone who wants to adopt better habits?

You can’t just say, “Oh, everyone says you should get up in the morning and run.” Maybe you can’t stand the cold. Maybe you’re a night person. Maybe you have little kids and can’t get out of the house. You have to start with what’s true about yourself and go from there.


Gretchen Rubin author

Author Gretchen Rubin. Photo, Dave Cross.

Gretchen Rubin’s strategies

A closer look at her four basic elements that help make good habits stick

First things first: Make sure you’re on top of sleep, healthy eating, physical activity and clutter, and you’ll be able to adopt other good habits.

Choose a regular, recurring time during which you will do a particular activity or complete an ongoing task.

Keep track of what you’re doing and what you want to accomplish. Maintaining a list allows you to be aware of your progress.

Make your intentions public — whether in a blog post, a promise to a friend or a commitment to a trainer. This helps ensure your actions have consequences.

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin, $30.