Up to 40% of our daily activities are made up of habits. Especially how we start our day before being completely awake is very much dictated by habits. Do we snooze, do we get up right away, do we immediately brush our teeth or do we reach for the coffee before anything else?
While this period of my life has been a turning point in the most painful way, I’m also in a way inspired to see where this change that I’m undergoing will eventually take me. I’ll never be the same – that’s for sure. But then how about trying to be a better version of who I was. Since I feel that I truly have to relearn how to live, why not try to live in the best way possible? Don’t I owe that to my friend? Don’t I owe that to myself?
Being the curious reader that I am, I’ve read several books on how to live a better life and become a better version of myself. After having read Gretchen Rubin’s “The happiness project” twice and embracing many of her ideas, I bought another book she had written called “Better than before – mastering the habits of our everyday lives”. I figured, since I’m undoubtedly different from before, why not try to be better than before. This book turned out to be way better than expected.
Rubin starts by providing a framework for four different tendencies that most people fit into. Obligers, Questioners, Upholders, and Rebels. Obligers are able to meet the expectations of others but fail to deliver anything without external motivation. Questioners question everything and only follow rules if it makes sense to do so (I’m a questioner). Upholders follow all rules – both those set by others and themselves, and can therefore sometimes be perceived as a bit rigid by their surroundings. Rebels reject all rules and expectations and tend to do whatever they want whenever they want.
Based on your tendency, Rubin provides guidelines for leading better lives. Her first piece of advice is “decide not to decide”, which means that if you want to give up something (sugar, alcohol, chips, or – in my case meat and dairy), it’s far easier to decide once and for all to give that up. People are often put off by the idea of giving up something all together but in the end it’s easier to make the decision only once instead of having to decide every time an opportunity arises. I made the decision of becoming a vegetarian a long time ago and that means that I never have to waste any mental energy debating with myself whether or not to eat animal products. It’s just a clear no. In a similar manner, I once read about a man who always felt weird in his stomach if he ate sweets. He then decided to always say no to dessert. Whenever he was offered, he would politely decline and that quickly became a habit. He decided once, in order not to have to decide again.
As human beings, we are habitual creatures by nature. I’m sitting in my local Starbucks in my usual seat sipping my usual unsweetened soy latte and nipping at my bagel as I’m writing this post. This habit of writing in a coffee shop is fine, but some habits are less so.
Of the habits I’ve been meaning to change in my own life was the habit of mindlessly scrolling through social media on my phone just because I had to wait 40 seconds for the elevator. Or hitting the snooze button once or twice on some mornings, or spending hours in front of youtube instead of reading or studying. Or checking my email for the 17th time the same morning. Not harmful habits, surely, but still habits that did not contribute with anything positive in my life. Instead they removed my focus from the truly important things.
Rubin provides useful advice for not checking email and social media constantly. First, make sure that your phone is out of reach. Having to take steps to check it creates an opportunity for stopping yourself. When you feel the need to check now, try applying the 15-minute rule. Tell yourself that if you still want to check in 15 minutes, then it’s okay. In that way you turn it into a mindful decision instead of a mindless compulsion. Usually by the end of the 15 minutes you’ll have forgotten about the urge and be consumed by other thoughts. This works well for mindless snacking too.
So what are the habits that I’ve changed over the past few weeks? I’ve definitely checked social media way less than I used to. I have applied the 15 minute rule to snacking too, and made a decision not to buy chocolate. Not forever, obviously, but my convenience store on the ground floor of my building always has 2+1 promotions of their chocolate bars and I’m just not able to buy and save chocolate. If I buy it, I eat it. So for now, I just don’t buy it. In this way, I don’t have to make a decision whenever I go there to buy tissues or bananas. I have already made the decision before walking in to the store.
I’ve also (almost) quit snoozing. I realize that if I go to bed at a reasonable hour I’m usually quite well-rested the next morning and don’t feel the need to snooze. To make sure that I do get up, I’ve placed my alarm across the room so that I have to get up in order to turn it off. I never had any problems getting up when I had to, but now that the semester is over and I don’t have to teach in the mornings I have been a repeat offender in hitting the snooze button. Not anymore!
These are small changes, surely, but it’s always easier to keep good habits if you start small. Whether you want to spend less time scrolling on Instagram, exercise more, snooze or snack less, motivate yourself to write or read more, or something entirely different I highly recommend that you check out Better than before.