From the Vault #8 | Habits and Happiness with Gretchen Rubin

From the Vault #8 | Habits and Happiness with Gretchen Rubin

Our From the Vault series examines episodes from The Art of Charm’s past more deeply; we invite you to revisit them — or discover them for the first time — with us. This From the Vault revisits our conversation about habits, how these habits are formed, and happiness with Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits — to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life.

Episode 388: Mastering Happiness with Gretchen Rubin was recorded at the end of March 2015 and featured a true expert in happiness and habits, Gretchen Rubin. Gretchen has authored four books on these topics and sat down with Jordan to share some tips and strategies about how to make our life better through more mindful habits.

Creating a Favorable Environment for Habits to Thrive

Gretchen points out that outer order contributes to inner calm. The more ordered things are, the more calm and energetic you will find yourself.

How Many Days Does It Actually Take to Form a Habit?

Jordan brought up his skepticism regarding the number 28 that he used to cite himself when discussing habits. But then he thought, why not 26, or 30? Gretchen completely agreed. Not only was this specific number really an urban myth, but more important, scientific studies around habits have really only examined the way that some habit formation works for some people. These studies take for granted that all people have the same conceptions about habits and that one size fits all. More often than not she finds that when someone says, “I tried to do X (lose weight, exercise)” and she probes a bit to find out why they failed, it’s because they chose a way that didn’t work well for them. This is actually good news, because there are lots of ways to form a habit and keep one, and they don’t need to involve 20-something number of days of repetition.

Gretchen shared that sometimes people make decisions at the right time for the most unexpected reason. People she shared a conversation with about diet some years later tell her that they quit eating carbs after talking with her, “just like that.”

One way to understand how people are different and why they form habits differently is to think about them in terms of simplicity and abundance (Jordan parses them as “Apple” or “Android” people). Some people like clean shelves and empty spaces and others like profusion and a great number of choices. Often those belonging to either tribe (whether they know it or not) can get particularly judgmental of the other. “You’re doing it wrong,” they argue. But that’s missing the point, Gretchen says. Again, it comes back to order. Even a lover of abundance doesn’t want to spend 30 minutes looking for something. The more you understand what kind of person you are, the better you can set yourself up for success in habit formation.

What Are the Benefits of Habits?

The 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss has perhaps most famously been the apostle of automation, both in work and life, because he subscribes to the thesis of decision fatigue. Gretchen echoes this by saying that “habits can be energizing.” This is because the brain loves automation — anything you can automate — for it allows you to free up “bandwidth” for so many other things, often of a much higher level.

“Don’t make healthy choices,” she says. “Just make a choice once and then automate.”

Apart from freeing up our mind to “do other things,” habits also speed time, for better or for worse. The classic example is getting to or from work and not remembering how you did it because the process has become so automated. The opposite of this would be moving, or a vacation, or a new job. Time slows down so significantly that we notice and marvel at it.

We Form Habits in Different Ways. How Can We Keep Them?

Gretchen points to the importance of treats. She defines them not as “rewards” but as “something I enjoy.” She notes that if you don’t give yourself healthy treats on some kind of regular basis you will inevitably say things, either internally or externally, like, “I deserve to have this…” and the objects of your affection may be unhealthy things, like retail “therapy” or alcohol. “If I give more to myself, I can ask more of myself” is how she summarizes this tactic.

Jordan shared how switching to tea from coffee allowed him to take something from his everyday life and turn it into a treat. Now, when he wants to get a coffee, it can be a nice, luxurious pour-over that he can enjoy because he has a window of time to do so.

Gretchen also shared something she calls the “one-minute rule.” If it’s something like putting away a file, hanging up a jacket, or putting away a jar of peanut butter, just do it now. The clutter will always be constantly coming into your life, and these are easy singles you can hit to keep yourself available for the big swings.

These little things also reinforce a mindset that allows you to take on a day. On more than one episode of the podcast, Jordan has heard guests note that making the bed is an important part of winning the day; he himself observed what a mentality shift happened when he started to do this.

Gretchen said that making your bed is a classic example of “self-efficacy.” You said that you would do something and you did — you create a feeling of being able to depend on yourself, and this can really lift you.

What happens when something that was formerly effortless now becomes very difficult? That’s a clear sign you need some form of accountability. This could be something like a novelist having a writing coach that will demand chapters at certain intervals, or even having a dog to help you get out more (Gretchen noted that people who have dogs often exercise more than people who have gym memberships).

Loopholes, and Why We Should Avoid Them

Gretchen named a number of ways people allow themselves to break habits, from “concern for others” to “this doesn’t count” to “arranging to fail.” Jordan added “YOLO” to the list. As human beings we have the propensity, talent, and desire to talk ourselves into anything, and this is just one form of that. But what these loopholes end up doing is insidiously undermining your habits and ultimately your serenity. This can be addressed by more mindfulness. That greater awareness of yourself and what you are trying to achieve in your habits will empower you to address, if not consistently defeat, these loopholes when they tantalizingly present themselves to you.

From the Vault selects notable concepts from a particular episode, but there’s always lots more to hear, including Gretchen’s reflections on home and how its competing expectations have to be managed, as well as Jordan’s “Ancient Greek Parthenon level” of satisfaction at having decluttered and organized his audio studio. Listen to this episode and find the original show notes (with all of Gretchen’s links) here. If you have 60 seconds, take the time to thank her on Twitter and tag us.

What’s the most empowering habit you’ve created in the last five years? How did you start it? Send your answers to

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