Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life. Research shows that each day, we repeat about 40 percent of our behavior, so our habits shape our existence, and our future.
If our habits work for us, we’re far more likely to be happy, healthy, and productive—and if our habits don’t work for us, we’ll find it tougher.
So if we want to change our lives, changing our habits is a great place to start. But that observation just raises another question: Okay, how do we change our habits?
Many experts offer a one-size-fits-all solution. Do it first thing in the morning. Do it for thirty days. Start small. Give yourself a weekly cheat day.
It’s tempting to look for a magic, universal answer—but as we all know from tough experience, no magic answer exists.
In my research for Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, I uncovered a surprising truth that—really—isn’t much of a surprise: We each must cultivate the habits that work for us.
Some people do better when they start small; others when they start big. Some need to be held accountable; some defy accountability. Some like to work in quiet, spare environments; others thrive amid bustle and abundance. There’s no one right answer.
Also, it’s easy to expect that by copying the habits of productive, creative people, we’ll win similar success. What did Albert Einstein do?
But the fact is, everyone’s different.
Some productive, creative people have the habit of getting an early start (like Haruki Murakami) or working late (like Tom Stoppard); of living a life of quiet predictability (like Charles Darwin) or of boozy revelry (like Toulouse-Lautrec); of procrastinating endlessly (like William James) or working regular hours (like Anthony Trollope); of working in silence (like Gustav Mahler) or amid a bustle of activity (like Jane Austen); of drinking a lot of alcohol (like Friedrich Schiller) or drinking a lot of coffee (like Kierkegaard); of producing work for many hours a day (like H. L. Mencken) or for just thirty minutes a day (like Gertrude Stein).
We can’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.
And once we identify those habits, we must make great effort to maintain them, even if others tell us we’re doing it “wrong.” Getting up early to exercise may sound great, but if you can barely make it to work by 10:00 am, you’re not going to form the habit of an 8:00 am run. Having a cheat day may work for a Moderator, but I’m an Abstainer—which means that I find it much easier to resist a strong temptation by abstaining altogether.
Now, when it comes to understanding our habit nature, it’s very helpful to know where we fall in the “Four Tendencies” framework.
In a nutshell, this framework distinguishes how you tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (practice guitar, get more sleep).
Your response to expectations may sound obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.
Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense–essentially, they make all expectations into inner expectations.
Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves (e.g., a journalist who can write for an editor but can’t work on a novel in his free time).
Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.
To discover your Tendency, and its implications for habit formation, take this Quiz. More than 55,000 people have taken it.
Bottom line? When it comes to changing our habits—and changing our lives—the most important thing is to know ourselves. Then we can make the choices that will allow us to succeed, even if we’ve failed before.
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