SXSW: Author Gretchen Rubin on why it's hard to form habits we want - and how to change that

The panel: Gretchen Rubin, "Five Counterintuitive Truths about Habit"

If you’ve ever failed to hit Day 30 when trying to create a habit, Gretchen Rubin’s research and approach for forming lasting habits is for you.

The best-selling author got into the study of people and their habits (or lack thereof) through her work in happiness. In her happiness research, she says, she found people again and again who asked, "Why can't I form habits that are good for me?"

As researchers and curious folks do, she then looked for answers to more questions: Why can’t we form habits for things we love to do? Why do some habits seemingly form overnight? Or disappear just as quickly?

She has an answer for those who ask, “Why bother?” Because “habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life.”

Yes, this talk went deeper than the typical “5 tips for forming a habit.” (Rubin identifies 21 strategies for changing habits.)

The first step, Rubin says, is an important one: Know your nature. “Think about what is true for ourselves,” she says. What works for your sister, or your friend, or your partner might not work for you. Speaking of partners: “People experience habits in different ways, and that can lead to relationship strife.”

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Rubin joked that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like to divide people into groups and those who don't. She's decidedly in the former, and her research led her to create her "four tendencies" to categorize people for her work in "Better Than Before," her book about habits.; read more about the four and take her quiz to see which you are. The best part about this approach? No judgment. For Rubin, it's not about trying to change your nature, which goes deep, but about working with who you are to create the habits and the life you want.

A few more takeways:

  • Think in milestones, not goals. Rubin gave the example of folks training for a marathon. They stick to the schedule, run the marathon, and often never run again. They met the goal of the marathon without forming a real habit. "People pass the finish line and stop."
  • For the vast majority of people, outer order contributes to inner calm. If you can get control of the stuff of life -- clothes, clutter, etc. -- you can get control of your life. Rubin said she knew exactly what a friend meant when she said, "I cleaned out my fridge, and now I know I can switch careers." (Hey, SXSW organizers, how about a Gretchen Rubin/Marie Kondo summit for SXSW 2017?)
  • Know you nature, and you can learn to manage the downsides -- and harness the upsides.