Q&A: Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 10:39pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 10:39pm
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Gretchen Rubin has an energetic zeal when talking about her new book, for which she was once again part researcher and part guinea pig. Better Than Before in many respects picks up where The Happiness Project left off. This time, she explored not just what makes us happy, but why routines play such a crucial role in our personal fulfilment and success. Rubin spoke with Lillian Cunningham about developing - and maintaining - good habits, particularly when it comes to our professional lives.

When it comes to being happy in our professional lives, are there habits people tend to need more help with than others?

One that's challenging for people is to have a habit of leisure. Work is constantly seeping in. People often want the feeling of being off duty - stepping away from a device, not checking email, not feeling like they should be working all the time, getting enough sleep. A strategy that works well for that is to make it inconvenient to do something like check your phone. If you walk around with it in your back pocket, you're going to find it irresistible. But if you put it in the pocket of your coat, then put your coat in the closet, you make it a little bit harder, which helps create that barrier between work and home.

Do you have any advice for how to chip away at longer-term professional goals, like working on a book or changing careers?

Whenever anybody has a problem with procrastination, it helps to commit to a specific time and a specific place to do that work. Because something that can be done at any time is often done at no time. And here's something important when you're scheduling: do that work and nothing else. Don't check email. Don't do research. Don't clean up your office.

Do you take that time out of evening hours with family? Or find ways to bake that into your day job?

There's no one solution, because everyone's job and nature is different. I would say that many people readily meet external expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. When they have work deadlines, they easily meet those. But if there is something they're doing for themselves - like learning a software program or writing - that's hard because there's no one waiting. If that describes you, you need to figure out how to build external accountability. Maybe you can work with a friend, or have an accountability group, or hire an executive coach.

What's the most interesting thing you came across in your research that relates to leadership?

People often say: "I want to be like Steve Jobs or Ben Franklin. I'm going to look at what that person's habits were and copy them for myself. If it worked for them, it'll work for me." That is not the case. When you look at the people who are the most productive, the most creative, they figured out what works for them. Some people drink a lot of coffee; some people drink a lot of booze. Some people stay up late; some people go to bed early. Some people work many hours a day; some people work very few hours a day. Some people work in solitude; some people work amid a lot of buzz. The people who are really successful just figure out what works for them, and they work like crazy to make sure their environment gives them what they need.

You explored the link between habits and decision-making, and how habits free us from constantly facing the same questions. Why is automating decisions such a powerful tool?

When the brain has the opportunity to make something into a habit, it wants to - because that frees the brain to think about novel, complex and urgent matters. It's freeing when we don't have to make decisions. I don't decide to get up at 6am. I don't decide to skip dessert. I decided those long ago. Decision-making is draining and it's difficult, so if we avoid decision-making, then we don't have to use our self-control. A lot of times people will say to me, "I want to go through my day making healthy choices. Help me do that." And I think: "You don't want to go through your day making healthy choices, because every time you're choosing, you have the opportunity to make the wrong choice. You want to make one choice, and then stop choosing." Are you going to the gym? Yes, you are. Are you going to go to sleep at 11pm? Yes, you are. If you put it on autopilot, then you don't have to drain yourself trying to make decisions, which can drive you crazy.

What are the best strategies for strengthening self-control?

I found when it comes to resisting a strong temptation, for some people abstaining works really well. With technology, often people have to go cold turkey. Like my sister: she couldn't just play a little Candy Crush. She had to delete it from all of her devices. There are four areas that really matter for our self-control. You want to think about eating and drinking right; sleeping, because you lose your self-control if you're drained; moving, just a little bit of exercise helps people have self-mastery; and then, weirdly, uncluttering. I was kind of surprised to realise how important this was. For many people, getting rid of stuff makes you feel more in control of your life. And if it's an illusion, it's a helpful illusion.

The Washington Post