For her first two self-help books, “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home,” Gretchen Rubin tried out dozens of new habits, from small lifestyle tweaks like kissing her husband every morning and keeping her closet tidy to big changes like exercising regularly and making time to write a novel. To Rubin, the point of the books was simple — try new things and see if they work — but as she went on tour, she kept hearing the same complaint.
“All these people were coming up to me saying, ‘I want to do these things but I can’t get myself to do them,’ ” and I didn’t understand,” she says. “I was like, ‘What’s the big deal? You just make a list and do it.’ ”
While writing her latest book, “Better Than Before,” Rubin had an epiphany: Maybe she — the author of several best-selling books and a former Supreme Court clerk — is a bit unusual.
“I began to realize, ‘You know what? This is easier for me than it is for a lot of people,’ ” she says.
That’s because Rubin is what she calls an Upholder, one of four personality types she describes in “Better Than Before” which she’ll discuss at Politics and Prose on Sunday. (Take a quiz to see where you fit.)
Upholders find it easy to keep commitments to themselves and others. Most people, on the other hand, are Obligers, and keep commitments to others but don’t always follow through on their commitments to themselves. Then there are Questioners, who need their habits to make sense, and Rebels, who hate routine.
Before you take on any new habit, the author says, you must figure out which of her Four Tendencies best describes you.
“With Obligers, for example, they need accountability. They need things like a running partner who will be mad if you skip a day,” she says.
Questioners need to do the research to determine if there’s a rational reason for a new habit, she says. Once there, strategies like attaching a new habit to an established one can help Questioners make their new habits stick.
As for Rebels, the trick is to link new habits with deeply held values. A Rebel might rankle at the idea of sticking to a schedule yet decide to do it anyway — thinking, for example, “ ‘I want to be a strong, reliable parent, so I will always pick my child up on time,’ ” Rubin says.
Mapping out these tendencies has given Rubin a newfound appreciation for others’ motivations. “I’m so much more tolerant now because I understand not everyone’s like me. Also, I understand how to communicate with people in a way that’s more effective,” she says. When she asks her husband to do something and he wants to know why, Rubin now understands that he’s not being a pain, he’s just being his Questioner self.
Rubin’s personality rubric has made a bigger splash than she expected. And, once again, she’s following her readers’ interest to the topic of her next book.
“Once ‘Better Than Before’ came out, I would speak about habits for 20 minutes, and all the questions were about the Four Tendencies,” she says. “There was so much interest, I thought, ‘Man, I gotta write a whole book about this.’ ”
Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sun., 5 p.m., free.
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