Gretchen Rubin has a slight frame, a fast mouth and 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 her earlier body of advice, The Happiness Project, left off. This time, she decided to explore not just what makes us happy, but why routines play such a crucial role in our personal fulfillment and success.
Rubin spoke with The Post about the intersection between our habits and our careers, and how good former ones lead to good latter ones. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. When it comes to being happy in our professional lives, are there any habits people tend to need more help with than others?
A. One of the habits that’s really 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 their 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 really 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 have to go over there to check it. You just make it a little bit harder, which helps create that limit between work and home.
Q. Do you have any advice for how to chip away at longer-term professional goals people have for themselves, like working on a book or changing careers?
A. 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 your email, don’t do research, don’t clean up your office. Do what you’re supposed to do, because working on something else can be one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination. Often when we have some big goal we’re working toward, we’ll work on other things as a way of putting off what we know we really ought to be doing.
Q. When should you schedule such time for career development? Do you take that out of evening hours with family? Or find ways to bake that into your day job?
A. There’s no one solution, because everyone’s job is different and everyone’s nature is different. But one thing I would say is 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 a resume to set themselves up for a new career path—that’s very hard for them to do, because there’s no one waiting.
If that describes you, you need to figure out how to build external accountability. Maybe you work with a friend, or have an accountability group, or hire an executive coach, or arrange with someone to get that resume to them by a certain date. If you’re just waiting for yourself to do it on your own, you might really stall out.
Q. What’s the most interesting thing you came across in your research that relates to leadership?
A. 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’s going to 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.
It would be easier if there were a one-size-fits-all solution for the habits that make a great leader or a great thinker. But there’s really not. The people who are really successful just figured out what works for them, and they work like crazy to make sure that their environment gives them what they need.
Q. One of the questions you posed to yourself when starting research for the book was why even enjoyable habits are so hard to develop and keep. What did you find?
A. It’s understandable why you can’t get yourself to do something like go bike riding regularly if you don’t like bike riding. But, more mysteriously, sometimes it’s hard to form the habit even when you love bike riding. The fact that you like to do a behavior doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily going to be easier.
Just as with habits that feel a little less comfortable, you’ve got to sit down and think, “What are all the things I can do to help cement that habit into place?” If you’re the kind of person I am, enjoying something probably means you bump it lower on the list. I’m more likely to prioritize the things that I enjoy less.
Q. You explored the link between habits and decision-making, and how habits free us from constantly facing the same questions. Why is automating our decisions such a powerful tool?
A. 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. That’s fantastic for us. It’s freeing when we don’t have to make decisions.
These days I don’t decide to get up at 6 a.m. 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’m like: 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 11 p.m.? 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.
Q. Have you heard the refrain “You have the same number of hours in the day as Beyoncé”?
A. No, but it’s obviously true.
Q. I think it caught on because it really resonates with a lot of people, who think, “How is it that others manage to do so much more with their time than I seem to be able to do with my time?” So, what’s key to boosting the productivity of any given day?
A. Monitoring is kind of this magical strategy, because even if you’re not consciously trying to change a behavior, if you monitor it then you start moving in the right direction. If you want to eat better, you keep a food journal. If you want to move more, you use a step counter. With time use, it’s the same thing. Paying attention to how you use your time is very helpful—especially your time late at night.
Many people spend a couple hours at the very end of their day as leisure time, goof-off time. It’s not very high quality. They’re like, “What can I do except lie on the couch and watch reality TV? I’m too exhausted to do anything else.” But why are you so exhausted? You’re staying up late every night watching reality TV.
If you could go to bed earlier, then you could recapture that hour. You might choose to do something very different with that time if you use it from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m, instead of 11 p.m. to midnight. So getting a handle on how you actually spend your time is a really good way to start moving in the right direction to get more value out of it.
Q. What are your tips for people when they fall off the wagon with a habit?
A. It’s all about planning to fail—anticipating what the challenges are, and figuring out what you’re going to do if you slip up. The funny thing about habits is you have to keep two ideas that are exactly contrary in your mind at all times.
One is that you really, really don’t want to slip up, especially at the beginning. The more consistent you are with a habit, the faster it’s going to lock in. But at the same time, you want to keep in mind that if you do slip up, it is not a big deal.
Sometimes people think that if they load themselves with guilt and shame, they’re going to somehow energize themselves to do a better job with their habits. But in fact, research finds that people who show themselves compassion are more likely to get back up on the horse.
It’s important to tell yourself things like, “It wasn’t my best day. I’ll learn to do better next time.” But it’s also important to think about how to avoid challenges. What are you going to do if you’re on vacation? What are you going to do if you get sick? What are you going to do if somebody bakes a cake especially for you?
Have a plan for how your habits are going to shift to accommodate changing circumstances, because life isn’t so regular that we don’t have to face these speed bumps.
Q. What’s your advice for leaders and managers who need to motivate others to be more productive?
A. It’s really important to recognize that people have different habit patterns. For instance, something you see in the workplace a lot is that some people are marathoners when it comes to work pace, and some people are sprinters.
I’m a marathoner. We don’t like to get up against a deadline. What makes us creative and productive is when we’re doing our work steadily over the long term. Sprinters like the adrenaline of a deadline. They feel like that’s when their ideas come and when their productivity shoots up. If they start too early, they feel like they burn out, lose interest and waste time.
As a marathoner, I used to try to convince people that my way was the better way. It’s not that it is the better way. It’s that it’s the better way for me. If you’re a manager, there could be advantages of having both of those work styles in a team. But you need to see what the patterns are so that you can manage them more successfully.
Q. You do note in the book, though, that sprinting and procrastinating are not the same thing.
A. Procrastinators and sprinters can look alike, because they’re both doing their work right up against a deadline, but there’s a big difference. Sprinters like the adrenaline and they’re completely satisfied with what they produce. Procrastinators are not happy about it. They’re forced up against that deadline and wish they could have started earlier. They’re very anxious and full of regret. They feel like, had they had more time, they would have done a better job.
So if you’re a procrastinator, find ways to use habits so that you start earlier. A lot of times when people are procrastinating, it’s because they have so much anxiety about starting that they keep putting it off.
Q. What are the best strategies for strengthening one’s self-control?
A. 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. Sometimes when you’re trying to manage self-control, it sounds like it’s harder to give up something altogether, but actually it’s easier.
There are also 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 realize how important this was.
For many people, getting rid of stuff makes you feel more in control of your life generally. And if it’s an illusion, it’s a helpful illusion.
Q. Do you ever worry that people turn to your research for a perfect solution and end up disappointed when it doesn’t totally change their life?
A. When I was studying happiness, I realized that one of the elements of a happy life is an atmosphere of growth. We’re happier when we feel like we’re growing or we’re making something better. So I think that’s why a lot of people go to these books.
More people need to be reminded than informed. They know if they put something on the schedule, for example, they’re more likely to do it. But somehow it helps to see it in a framework.
Then other times, things that come automatically to some are, in fact, a big revelation for others. Pairing is a good example—it’s the idea that you put something you like together with something that you don’t like. (You only get to watch “Game of Thrones” on the treadmill.) This is not a subtle idea, but some people have never thought about it.
Listen to the full conversation: