I am a triathlete in remission. After scores of races since 1999, and thousands of hours of training, there are no races on my calendar this year. None last year, either. And yet, three times a week, at 4:45 AM the alarm goes off, I get up, drive to the local YMCA and swim back and forth in the cool chlorinated water of the pool for about 50 minutes.
Swimming is my least favorite of the three disciplines, and getting in cold water in the middle of winter is not normally my idea of a party. Why am I still swimming when running is much simpler and cycling more fun?
Habit, I guess.
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Which is why Better Than Before was immediately interesting when my neighbor brought this book to my attention. Authored by Gretchen Rubin, it takes a thorough look at what habits are, how they are formed, and why it is sometimes hard to form good ones and even harder to get rid of bad ones.
Right off the bat, I have to say that I enjoyed the tone of the book. Rubin comes across as the slightly quirky, somewhat obsessed good friend who wants to help everyone around her be successful, and has dozens of good ideas that we should think about implementing right away.
Something else that appealed is that she doesn’t attempt to impose a “one-size-fits-all” solution; everyone is different, so what works for one person may not be as effective for someone else. Thank you!
To deal with this variety, she lays out four types of behavioral tendencies that people seem to have – depending on how they interact with their own expectations and those of others:
Upholders who try to meet both their own expectations and the expectations of others
Obligers who respond readily to others’ expectations but struggle to meet their own
Questioners who like to question all expectations and only respond to those that make sense to them
Rebels who tend to resist all expectations
Depending on which of these types you are makes a difference in how you go about setting up a habit and sticking with it.
It’s like one of my wife’s favorite sayings:
From her list, I’m mostly an “Upholder” with a good dose of “Questioner” from time to time.
The Four Pillars of Good Habits
Next, she lays out four pillars of good habits. The more your intended habit has of these, the more likely you will be able to stick with it. My swimming habit scored fairly high in all categories.
Monitoring – It helps if the habit is clearly defined and easy to monitor. Instead of “go to the gym more,” try something like “swim three times a week for 50 minutes.”
For swimming, it’s clear how far to go, and when I am done I log it in my little journal – no question about whether or not I did the workout.
Foundation – Good habits reinforce other good habits, so there’s more reason to do them.
Swimming is good since it’s cardiovascular, works the whole body, and is low impact as a bonus. And like most physical activity, it helps reduce stress, boost mood and energy, and improves my sense of well-being.
Scheduling – When you set aside time specifically for the habit, you are more likely to do it; mornings are best since there tends to be fewer distractions.
On my Google Calendar the swim is an automatically repeating entry. It’s where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing at that time. Also, my wife gets her workouts in on the alternate days and I have other responsibilities those mornings, so there is only do or not do; procrastinating is not an option.
Accountability – If we believe someone is watching us, we tend to behave differently.
Swimming is such a regular thing now that my family expects that I’ll go, and will ask questions if I don’t. Acquaintances at the gym will also start to ask questions if I miss a workout. After one race, I took a month off to recover. Someone from the gym actually tracked me down and called me to see if anything was wrong since he hadn’t seen me for a while.
On the basis of the four pillars of habit, the morning swim routine was ranking rather well so far.
A Menu of Tips, Tactics, and Techniques
The balance of the book Rubin devotes to a menu of different techniques and approaches that can help you get a good habit started and then keep it going.
What was particularly helpful was that for each of these methods, she talks about how well they are likely to work based on what your particular tendency happens to be. Something that works well for an Obliger may not work at all for a person who identifies as a Rebel.
Among the methods on the list, Identity is an important one for my swimming habit.
As Rubin explains it, when a habit is a part of who you are, it becomes easier to stick with it for good or for bad.
She mentions an Italian friend who feels her identity is tied up in the idea of drinking wine and being fun at parties. The friend wants to drink less, but it is hard for her to change because of the expectations she feels others have about her (clearly she’s an Obliger).
I still like to think of myself as a triathlete, and getting up early and swimming is something a lot of them do. So how could I do otherwise, right?
Better Than Before: The Takeaway
Better Than Before is a great book that makes sense of the whys and hows of habit formation. But more than just a breakdown of the process, it can serve as a practical handbook for helping you to develop all those good habits you’ve been thinking about, and making them stick.
And now I understand a little better what gets me up and into the pool three mornings a week even when it is winter and the high school kids are making me look slow. And when it is time to develop a new habit, there’s a much better chance of making it stick.
After all, before you can lead others, you have to be able to lead yourself. Thanks to Gretchen Rubin, that job just got a little easier.
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