The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Better than Before: A Psychological Field Guide to Harnessing the Transformative Power of Habit

“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil… Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar,” William James wrote in his seminal 1887 treatise on habit, the bundle of behavior he called the “enormous fly-wheel of society.” In the century since, our civilizational love affair with habit has only intensified — we’ve become besotted with the daily routines of luminaries and transfixed by the psychology of the perfect daily routine, as if replicating the way successful people structure their time would somehow sprinkle the pixie dust of success over our own lives. But as much as we lust after these shiny routines and beneficial behaviors, we still have an enormously hard time changing our habits. And yet, as Mary Oliver memorably wrote, “The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us.”

In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives (public library), Gretchen Rubin picks up where James left off, integrating a wealth of insight from psychology, sociology, and anthropology in an illuminating field guide to harnessing the transformative power of habit in modern life. The idea for this book came from a recurring observation Rubin made in the aftermath of her last, the indispensable The Happiness Project — readers kept telling her about a “before and after” pattern in their conquest of happiness, wherein the formation of a particular habit became a major turning point. So she set out to explore the deeper mysteries of these obvious turning points — why we have a hard time forming even habits we enjoy, what separates people who are able to adopt or drop habits overnight from those who aren’t, how we rationalize our willful blindness to the consequences of our habits, and more.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Rubin, a self-described “kind of street scientist,” writes:

Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence, and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives.

The most valuable aspect of habit, Rubin suggests, is its capacity to become an automated conservation mechanism for self-control, that enormously taxing exertion of our willpower:

Self-control is a crucial aspect of our lives. People with better self-control (or self-regulation, self-discipline, or willpower) are happier and healthier. They’re more altruistic; they have stronger relationships and more career success; they manage stress and conflict better; they live longer; they steer clear of bad habits. Self-control allows us to keep our commitments to ourselves. Yet one study suggests that when we try to use self-control to resist temptation, we succeed only about half the time, and indeed, in a large international survey, when people were asked to identify their failings, a top choice was lack of self-control.


And that’s why habits matter so much. With habits, we conserve our self-control.

Although the commonly agreed upon definition of habit includes several attributes of the behavior — it is recurrent, cued by a specific context, often performed unconsciously, acquired through repetition — Rubin argues that the true root of habit is decision-making or, rather, the lack thereof. A habit alleviates the cognitive load of having to choose one course of action over another and, in doing so, relieves our exertion of willpower:

Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control.


When possible, the brain makes a behavior into a habit, which saves effort and therefore gives us more capacity to deal with complex, novel, or urgent matters. Habits mean we don’t strain ourselves to make decisions, weigh choices, dole out rewards, or prod ourselves to begin. Life becomes simpler, and many daily hassles vanish.

Because the application of self-control itself stresses our cognitive resources, a solid infrastructure of habit matters all the more when we’re under stress:

When we’re worried or overtaxed, a habit comforts us. Research suggests that people feel more in control and less anxious when engaged in habit behavior… When we’re anxious or tired, we fall back on our habits, whether bad or good… For this reason, it’s all the more important to try to shape habits mindfully, so that when we fall back on them at times of stress, we’re following activities that make our situation better, not worse.

And yet there is a fine line between alleviating the cognitive load of decision-making and succumbing to a mindless trance of existence that carries us through life. (I have written about this previously in contemplating the crucial equipoise of routine and ritual.) Touching on the strange psychology of our warped time-perception, Rubin readily acknowledges this:

Habits speed time, because when every day is the same, experience shortens and blurs; by contrast, time slows down when habits are interrupted, when the brain must process new information.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Thoreau on what it means to be truly awake and Annie Dillard’s famous proclamation that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Rubin adds:

Habit makes it dangerously easy to become numb to our own existence.

For good and bad, habits are the invisible architecture of daily life.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from ‘Sidewalk Flowers,’ a visual ode to the art of presence. Click image for more.

Indeed, this is Rubin’s most vital point — while habits require no decision-making in their application, with their formation we decide our destiny; we are, as James wrote, “spinning our fates” whenever we set a new habit into motion or screech an old one to a halt. In addressing these “twin riddles of how to change ourselves and how to change our habits,” Rubin reflects on her own life:

Habit is a good servant but a bad master. Although I wanted the benefits that habits offer, I didn’t want to become a bureaucrat of my own life, trapped in paperwork of my own making.

Instead, she set out to understand how we can cultivate only those habits that make us “feel freer and stronger.” She outlines the sequential interplay of conscious and unconscious behaviors at the root of fruitful habit-formation:

When we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision making to choose the habits we want to form, we can use willpower to get the habit started; then — and this is the best part — we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise control of habits.

That’s the promise of habit.

To be sure, an over-reliance on habit puts us at risk of hitting the “OK plateau” of performance and personal growth, but Rubin makes room for the necessary conscious counterpoint to behavioral cruise control:

For a happy life, it’s important to cultivate an atmosphere of growth — the sense that we’re learning new things, getting stronger, forging new relationships, making things better, helping other people. Habits have a tremendous role to play in creating an atmosphere of growth, because they help us make consistent, reliable progress… By mindfully choosing our habits, we harness the power of mindlessness as a sweeping force for serenity, energy, and growth.

Illustration from ‘About Time’ by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

Rubin goes on to identify several key psychological archetypes that determine our relationship with habit, the most fascinating of which deals with how we handle the two types of expectations in life — outer (such as our work obligations and the law) and inner (such as our moral values and personal commitments). She identifies four distinct groups into which everyone falls:

  • Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations.
  • Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified.
  • Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

Arguably the most delicate balance of inner and outer expectations takes place in intimate relationships, where we constantly tussle with the polarizing pull of retaining our individual habits, which help us maintain our sense of identity, and negotiating shared habits, which bring us closer together into coupledom. In a sentiment that calls to mind a lament from young Susan Sontag’s diary regarding her unhappy marriage — “In marriage, I have suffered a certain loss of personality,” she wrote on Valentine’s Day in 1957 — Rubin cautions:

Changing a habit is much more challenging if that new habit means altering or losing an aspect of ourselves.

But this relationship between habit and identity is largely a matter of the same inner storytelling on which our sanity relies. Rubin writes:

Research shows that we tend to believe what we hear ourselves say, and the way we describe ourselves influences our view of our identity, and from there, our habits. If I say, “I’m lazy,” “I can’t resist a sale,” “I’ll try anything once,” “I never start work until the last minute,” or “I’m lucky,” those ideas become part of my identity, which in turn influences my actions.


In one study, one group of registered voters was asked, “How important is it to you to vote?” while another group was asked “How important is it to you to be a voter?” The second group was more likely to vote in the next election, because voting had been cast as an expression of identity — “This is the kind of person I am” — not just a task to be done.


Identity can help us live up to our own values: “I’m not someone who wastes time at work,” “I’m no shirker,” “If I say I’ll show up, I show up.”

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

In the remainder of Better Than Before, Rubin goes on to explore what we can do to break out of the limiting identities we habitually lock into, why the habit-identity pipeline flows in two directions in interpersonal relationships, and how we can begin to lay the foundation of fruitful habits. Complement it with Mary Oliver on habit and the cognitive science of the ideal daily routine.

Published March 23, 2015




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