Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Well-Engineered Self

Gretchen Rubin, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

Attorney turned author Gretchen Rubin has previously written about how people become happy, and why they don’t. A trained legal researcher, she brings a scholarly eye to her projects that isn’t exactly journalistic. She writes with a mix of acumen, anecdote, and humor that reaches certain audiences where they live. Now she turns her attention to the question: how can we make happiness self-supporting?

Humans, Rubin writes, are necessarily creatures of habit—we have to be. Easily forty percent of our daily activities function habitually, on neurological automatic, because we cannot spare the mental focus to make every decision consciously. But often, we fall haphazardly into habits that don’t bring satisfaction, and often obstruct productivity. Rubin encourages additional mindfulness about our habits, and engineering them directly.

Well-built habits begin with self-knowledge. Rubin acknowledges that many self-help books falter because authors assume their personalities are somehow normative. Rather than one-size-fits-all prescriptivism, Rubin begins by coaching readers through steps to recognize their personality types. She broadly outlines what she calls the Four Tendencies, which somewhat resemble the MBTI types, but not really.

I concede doubts about these Tendencies immediately. Rubin’s descriptions of Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel run broad as newspaper horoscopes, so inclusive that most people could recognize themselves in these categories. I recognize Questioner and Rebel in myself by natural tendency, and Obliger and Upholder encultured by my upbringing. Actually utilizing these tendencies will require substantial efforts at winnowing.

Gretchen Rubin
Leave that aside momentarily, though. Because subsequent chapters on the “Pillars of Habits” have robust roots in hard science and personal observation. Too often, we reprimand people for not fixing their own hash by undifferentiated willpower; pop visions of habit formation rely upon common sense, not replicable science. But as Duncan J. Watts writes, common sense is often neither common nor sensical.

Some of Rubin’s pillars are internal, particularly her emphasis on diligent self-monitoring, while others are more external, like the need for human accountability. Some straddle this divide, like writing firm schedules, which start internally but create an external document which demands users’ respect. Either way, they underscore that humans need a combination of self-awareness and public mutuality that’s become too rare anymore.

Once habit-forming behaviors commence, Rubin unveils the steps necessary to encourage productive habits, and discourage counterproductive ones. For instance, we’re more likely to continue patterns which we perceive as convenient, and halt those we consider inconvenient, so engineering our lives so desirable behaviors are also handy matters. Similarly, she suggests “pairing,” or linking something we ought to do with something we want to do.

Readers may find Rubin’s abstention chapter most controversial. We’ve heard the claims: I can occasionally indulge this behavior without becoming habitual, or once an addict, always an addict. Debates over addictive habits, from drugs to porn to workoholism, rehash this point, with people insisting that whatever works for me, works for everyone, QED. Rubin dares suggest that humans are individuals, and you’ll know whether you can safely chip.

Perhaps Rubin’s most revealing chapters deal with rewards versus treats. Though we may consider these interchangeable concepts, Rubin demonstrates they’re definitively not. Treats uplift our spirits, giving us motivation to continue onward. Rewards, and their close cousin, finish lines, permit us to consider the process “done.” As Rubin notes, and you’ve probably noticed yourself, once we halt desirable behaviors, getting started again is nearly impossible.

This book essentially isn’t for me. Rubin’s message often overlaps with Charles Duhigg and Kelly McGonigal, without their scientific grounding. In my experience, I (and many others) need the science to remind ourselves why certain processes work, and aren’t just mindless ritual. With her instructional bromides and coupled with upbeat anecdotes, Rubin more resembles a motivational speaker, and writes for audiences who need motivation over data.

Also, my opinion is somewhat colored: I read Rubin directly after Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream, about the drug war. Quoting multiple researchers, Hari demonstrates that addictive behaviors—the worst of all bad habits—result markedly from childhood abuse or social isolation. Since many of Rubin’s precepts involve social connections and unearthing buried causes, she’s perhaps stumbled onto principles with yet-unexplored mass social implications.

Within those caveats, Rubin writes an engaging book with many actionable principles. Though she doesn’t get into technical details, her points are specific enough that most people could actually apply them in ordinary circumstances. And though early precepts sometimes run vague, Rubin’s overall approach gives readers tools enough to improve their regular choices to create better circumstances and better lives.

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