Author Gretchen Rubin on Mastering Habits & Happiness (INTERVIEW)

The author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives offers up advice on making daily choices that could help change your life.
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Gretchen Rubin Photo Andy Ryan Courtesy Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. (Photo: Andy Ryan/Courtesy Gretchen Rubin)

Gretchen Rubin’s 2009 book, The Happiness Project, recounted the former Supreme Court clerk and Federal Communications Commission adviser’s yearlong effort to radically transform her life and generate more joy. 

Wouldn’t you know it? Rubin’s plan succeeded on both counts. Dramatically.

Better Than Before By Gretchen Rubin Courtesy Crown/Archetype

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin. (Photo: Courtesy Gretchen Rubin)

Happiness Project became a blockbuster, topping bestseller lists around the world, selling more than 1.5-million copies, receiving translations into more than 30 languages. In March, Rubin published the paperback edition of her Happiness follow-up, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, giving readers a well-researched, wildly entertaining, easily implemented road map to shifting our lives’ “invisible architecture” – or “habits,” which some experts say drives more than 40% of our daily behaviors. 

“Changing our habits is really very simple once we’ve allowed ourselves the self-awareness to know there’s a habit we want or need to change,” says Rubin. “If there is something you want to do more of, make it more convenient. If you want to do less of it, make it less convenient.”

How’s this for convenient? Read Biography’s interview with Rubin right here, right now, and then check out Rubin’s inspiring, tip-stuffed blog

It’s been often said that we teach what we most need to learn. How do your books fix into that equation? 

Oh yeah, definitely. They say research is me-search. That’s absolutely the case with my books, especially with Happiness Project. That was sort of the origin of it, trying to understand for myself about happiness and whether I was happy and whether I could be happier. If I could be happier, what would work for me? Very many good things came out of writing that book for me. 

Interestingly, your first book, Power, Money, Fame, Sex, is almost a parody of the inspiring, self help-ish books that you’ve written since.

Well, it's funny. I love Power, Money, Fame, Sex. That book is a funny book, because it is kind of a parody and it's kind of a satire. On the other hand, like somebody is always saying about something, "I don't know if you mean this or not." When I was asked that of Power, Money, Fame, Sex, I was, like, "Well, I do mean it, but it's in this parody form." So you're exactly right, it was a tremendous preparation for the later books. Also, to write that book, I was looking at the negative in all these things, these worldly ambitions, which paved the way for me to start thinking about things like wisdom and happiness. 

Are the books you write the kinds of books you also like to read?

That’s not true for every author, but I think it is true for me. I've always been very attracted to strange how-to manuals and guides or things like parody or satire. Writing Power, Money was very fun and a weirdly good preparation for Happiness Project. I also love sidebars and lists, which my books don't really have, but I can do on my blog. I get to use that part of myself online, and then my books are much more just straight narrative. I can have it both ways!

According to the publisher-furnished biography of Gretchen Rubin, writing books is something that no one really saw coming from you. There’s the Yale law degree, the gig clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the work with Federal Communications Commission. At what point do you realize, "I want to write books," or maybe it's something more like, "I really need to make a change?”

I think, looking back, I did everything a person would do to prepare to be a writer. I just wrote a huge amount all through college and law school, and I often would opt to do writing when I could have – or maybe should have – done other kinds of work. I read a huge amount. I was always taking tons of notes. I did a lot of things that were very writerly things, but I didn't really understand what kind of writer I wanted to be. I couldn't sort of conceive of myself doing it. 

How did you come to clarity on that matter?

The Happiness Project By Gretchen Rubin Courtesy Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (Photo: Courtesy Gretchen Rubin)

When I was clerking, I started working on a project, the project that eventually became, Power, Money, Fame, Sex, and I was doing this enormous amount of research and taking notes. Finally, it dawned on me. What I'm doing is the kind of work that somebody would do to write a book. Some people do this for their job. They don't do it on the weekends and after work; they do this for their job. It just really started to hit me that I really wanted to try and be a writer myself. I decided I would rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer at that point in my career. Also, a lot of it was getting to the point where I had to decide what I really wanted to do in life. I'd been on this track where it's like, "You should do this, you should do that, you should do this other thing." I just kept being like, "Okay, fine. Okay, fine." And then I was getting to the point where it was, like, "Well, what do you want to do, Gretchen?" I thought, "Well, really I want to be writing books." 

That epiphany became, essentially, Step One in the guidelines you offer in your books: Know Yourself. 
Right! Knowing yourself is a great start for sure, but then you have to listen to yourself!

That’s where many of us get stuck. What are some common bad habits people have and how can we “fix” that?
 A very common bad habit that people have is just not getting enough sleep. Most adults need at least 7 hours of sleep each night, and many people just don't get that sleep. They kid themselves and say, "Oh, I've trained myself to get by on 5 hours or whatever," but when scientists study these people, they're actually quite impaired. It really affects you. You become habituated to the lack of sleep, so you don't realize how off your game you are. Many people will say that they're just really tired. 

It’s wild, how we are so aware of the poor choices we’re making, and yet we don’t change the behaviors. 

It’s kind of insane, right? People know that sleep deprivation has serious consequences and yet they’re unable to change those habits. That’s one of the things I researched exhaustively for the book. 

What are some things we can do to rework that habit, specifically?

Some very easy things to happen is give yourself a specific bedtime. A 4-year-old goes to bed at 7:30. My bedtime is 10:30. If I'm up at 11, I'm like, "Hey! I'm up a half an hour past my bedtime." A lot of individuals say, "Well, I'll just go to sleep when I'm tired," but then they get that second wind at 11 pm. You check your email at 10:30, and then you're like, "Whew! I'm wide awake!" Or you turn on the TV, and you get that second wind, but you're actually very tired. So give yourself a specific bedtime and stick to it! What's 7 hours? Most people get up at the same time every morning, so just do the math. Another helpful tip is to set an alarm that tells you to go to sleep just like you have an alarm that tells you to go to wake up in the morning. A lot of people, just hearing an alarm, it's a queue for them. It's like, "Oh, it's my bedtime now." Another thing, though it probably sounds kind of strange, is when it's bedtime, I often find that I’m just too tired to go to bed. You have to brush your teeth, take out your contacts, put on your pajamas. Some nights, that sounds like a lot of work. 

So how do you handle that?

I try to get ready for bed earlier, and then I can stay up and do whatever I want until my bedtime alarm goes off. Then, when it’s time to go sleep, there's very little effort involved. I’m already ready! 

Sleep devices and sleep monitors have become a fad in recent years. What are your thoughts on those? 

For me, using a monitor like that was a huge eye opener, to actually see how much sleep I was getting – or wasn’t getting. I'm a sleep zealot, so I thought I was getting way more sleep than I actually was. It's very easy to just stay up a little later than you anticipated night after night after night. With the sleep monitor, I really saw when I was going to sleep and how much sleep I was getting. It really helped me be more disciplined about going to sleep at my bedtime, because I realized how often I was not. 

Gretchen Rubin and Oprah Photo Courtesy of Harpo Inc.

Rubin with Oprah Winfrey. The author appeared on Super Soul Sunday on OWN last November. (Photo: Harpo Inc.)

In the book, you refer to habits as being “the invisible architecture of our everyday lives.” The shocker is the statistic you drop: 40% of our daily behaviors are merely and purely habitual! 

It’s astonishing, isn’t it? 

So how do we become more mindful of these behaviors, and how might we overcome some of the obstacles to change that life – or we, ourselves – present? 

One of the things that was really surprising to me is how much people are influenced by something as basic as convenience and inconvenience. The tiniest little bit of making something easier or making it harder has a huge consequence in our behaviors. If there is something you want to do more of, make it more convenient. If you want to do less of it, make it less convenient. Any habit that you want to foster, think about ways that you can make it easier. If you want to break a habit, make it a harder one to follow. For instance, if you're a person who really likes playing video games maybe a little too much, and you really want to cut back, put the little controller device on a high shelf where you can't see it and where you have to put in some effort to get it out. I know somebody who, back in the old days, wanted to cut back on the amount of TV he was watching, so he just unplugged the TV and put it in a closet. 

Food habits are a huge challenge for many Americans. How do we handle those? 

I’m really glad you asked that! When I was researching the book, somebody told me that they kept their freezer really, really cold so that the ice cream she found irresistible every night at bedtime was so cold that every spoonful took a lot of effort to dig out of the carton. She had to stand there for 10 minutes and let the ice cream get soft. If it's soft, you can just gobble it down. It's just so much easier to eat a half a container of ice cream when the ice cream is soft. But when the ice cream is, basically, solid, like an ice cube, that’s just inconvenient enough to have most of us rethinking the habit — or at least drawing attention to the fact that our behavior is a habit. 

You’ve mentioned that some habits require even more radical measures, that sometimes it's worth it to just pack up our lives and relocate, paving the way for a whole new set of behaviors. 

If you can do it with mindfulness and self-awareness, then moving can be great for changing behaviors. You have to be aware that’s what you’re trying to do and, of course, moving isn’t always a possibility for us. But ideally, any kind of big change — a new job, a new puppy, a new relationship, anytime there's something new — that clean slate makes the shifting of habits much, much easier. When you change your address, all of your habits can feel almost magically wiped away. So next time you’re moving, try to take advantage of that. Think about, “What do I want to do differently in my life? What do I want more of? What do I want less of?” I know someone who quit smoking like that. He knew he had all his little places in his house where he smoked, and he just couldn't stand to be there if he couldn’t smoke. So he moved to a new place, and it was much easier to quit smoking, because he was suddenly absent all of those associations.

Your books are so incredibly accessible. They’re not delivered to readers from the mountaintop. They teem with authority, but without superiority. 

Thank you so much! One of the things that was interesting in writing about habits is that I came up with this framework about people's aptitude for habit formation. One of the things that I learned about myself is that I have a very high aptitude for forming habits. I like habits, and I form them pretty easily. Not that many people are like that. It was a huge eye opener for me. I understood other people much better when I realized we really are different from each other. With that awareness, I was able to approach my writing in a way that it might connect with the most people possible. The changes are subtle, I think, but they have made my writing more accessible I think. 

In the habits book, you talk about the four primary personality types: the upholder, the questioner, the rebel, the obliger. Which are you? 

I'm an upholder for sure (someone who accepts rules, whether from outside or inside, meets deadlines, follows doctor’s order, keeps a New Year’s resolution). There aren't that many upholders. We're a very, very small group of people.

Is that something you’d like to change about yourself?

(Laughs) I don’t think you can necessarily change that. But we can change an awful lot of things in our lives. That, I know is true!