Teflon to Velcro: How To Make Habits Stick
How many times have you said, or heard others say, they want to develop a habit or get rid of one?
Habits such as going to bed earlier, consuming less alcohol, exercising more often, or saving more money each month are examples of habits people tend to deem worth having. Habits like driving too fast, eating late at night, excessive spending, or interrupting people when they speak are examples of habits more likely considered worth losing.
For many of us, identifying what we want to change about ourselves is easy. Actually making changes and sustaining them – not so easy!
Entire industries are based on promises of change. Even a holiday, New Years, is about resolving to improve something about ourselves, ie to change a particular habit.
As a psychologist, I am fascinated by what motivates people to change and how they stay motivated.
There are lots of tips out there for how to improve your chances of successful habit change. Generic suggestions typically include the importance of consistency, daily practice, keeping it simple, hanging out with likeminded people who are already successful with the habit you are trying to build, and incorporating accountability. Setting realistic, measurable goals and rewarding the baby steps along the way are other common recommendations.
Ideas such as these are solid. They make sense.
But not for everyone.
In my clinical practice, I notice that generic lists are not necessarily helpful for every individual. There are no blanket suggestions that work for all of us. “It depends” is often the response to questions about personality. So many factors influence our behavior in ways that make it impossible to state hard and fast facts about our inclinations. History, experience, culture, expectations, genetics, and family background are factors that can’t possibly be accounted for in a generic list of how to develop and sustain habits.
Former attorney and now author Gretchen Rubin apparently agrees. She developed a cool rubric to help people improve their likelihood of making habits stick. She says that knowing how we respond to expectations can make the difference between success and failure. Each of us generally falls into one of four categories — Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel—depending on how we respond to outer and inner expectations. When we know in which category we fall, we are better able to understand ourselves. That works to our advantage, especially when it comes to goals we set for ourselves and habits we want to strengthen.
Here is the basic gist:
- Upholders respond to outer and inner expectations. They tend not to disappoint others or themselves.
- Questioners question expectations and will meet expectations only if the explanation makes sense to them.
- Rebels resist outer and inner expectations. This is the least common category.
- Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet self-imposed expectations. They benefit significantly from external accountability. This is the most common category of the four.
Recognizing which tendency you have (to do this, click here to take her quiz) will guide your approach to how to make a habit stick.
This column is not a review of Ms Rubin’s theory, nor is it an endorsement of it necessarily. Her theory though highlights a basic tenet: No one approach works for everyone.
My take home messages are:
Know(ing )yourself is an important requirement to making effective and lasting change. What works for you based on your personality, prior attempts, and/or reasons for wanting to make changes? This may shift over time and is going to be different from the person to your left or right.
Practice makes progress. If you fall off the horse, just get back on. No drama.
Perfection is the enemy of good. All or none thinking (“I have to do this perfectly or I am a failure”) is a setup . Throwing in the towel due to less than perfect execution or outcome will doom any possible success.
I will sign off now. My habit of being in bed by 10 pm must prevail. I am an Upholder, after all!