New Year Resolutions: A Conversation with Gretchen Rubin

Eric Swanson recently sat down with bestselling author Gretchen Rubin to talk about her book Happier at Home (now available in paperback). He said “it was like talking to a really good friend—someone wise, funny, resolutely practical, and refreshingly honest.” Here’s Part Two of the series. Check out Part One: Happier Holidays and Part Three: Feel More at Home, at Home.

Uh-oh. Here it is again. The New Year. The season of resolutions.

I’m really good at making resolutions. The follow-through . . . not so much.

I had a chance to speak recently with Gretchen Rubin, author of Happier at Home—a refreshingly candid chronicle of her nine-month project to make her home a place of safety, exploration, comfort, and love.

A lot of the work she put into this project involved making resolutions and sticking to them. So I was immensely cheered to read her confession early on in the book: “There’s a lassitude deep in my soul; I always have to fight my urge to do nothing.”

I so identify with that. Even when the weather outside isn’t particularly frightful, I’m tempted to follow my cats’ example. Find a cozy nest and sleep, mosey into the kitchen to graze, return to nest and sleep.

However, one of the things that Rubin discovered along the way is that keeping resolutions involves creating new habits (or breaking old ones).

Not surprisingly, this discovery has led her to investigate the nature of habits—which is the subject of the book she’s currently working on, Before and After. (Check out Rubin’s website for some helpful suggestions—or to offer your own “Before and After” story!)

“Doing all this research and thinking about happiness,” she explains, “over and over one of the things I saw a lot of times what was a big happiness challenge for someone was a habit. Some habit they wanted to break, some habit they wanted to make—and they were just not able to move forward. And I became very interested in that. Why is it that sometimes people can change and sometimes they can’t?”

She became increasingly fascinated with the question of how to harness the extraordinary power of habit to our advantage.

“Because the thing about habits,” she says, “is that they just go, they just happen. You don’t have to use decision-making, you don’t have to use your willpower. You just go to the gym. You just make your bed. So how do you do that?”

Exactly my question.

Delighted to share, Rubin notes that in the course of her investigation, she’s identified 18 simple, pragmatic strategies of habit formation.

MONITORING, for example. “If you start monitoring something, you get to do a better job of it. Knowing how many steps you take during the day or keeping a food journal—that helps.”

(Check: I use a printed sheet to track daily meditation periods and mantra repetitions.)

Or SCHEDULING. “If you put something on a schedule, you’re much more likely to go through with it.”

(Needs improvement: My strategy for getting to the gym involves buying only enough food to last a couple of days, so I’m forced to leave the apartment.)

One Rubin’s most original strategies involves GIVING YOURSELF TREATS.

“Not rewards,” she cautions, “which are things that you earn or that you deserve. Treats you just get because you want a treat. Having a menu of healthy treats for yourself helps you stay energized, which keeps your self-command high so you can keep your habits better.”

Another strategy is to safeguard yourself through “IF-THEN PLANNING.”

Think about the decisions you might be asked to make and decide in advance how to respond.

(For example: If someone passes me a plate of hors d’oeuvres, then I will not eat them.)

“If you decide in advance how you want to behave,” Rubin explains, “then you feel in control. What often makes people unhappy is that they decide to behave in a certain way, but then they don’t follow through. Then they feel they can’t count on themselves, and that’s not a good feeling.”

A little light went on in my head when I heard this. I’d never really thought about my New Year’s resolutions as an investment in my self-esteem. They’ve always been about improving on a slightly outdated version of myself.

I think I’m going to have to redo my list . . . a resolution revolution!

[Photo Credit: Maria Sbytova/]

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