According to self-help writer Gretchen Rubin, people always ask her to reveal the secret strategy for breaking a bad habit. But as she's quick to point out, there isn't one.
"While it would be terrific to discover some magic answer, the fact is — as we all know from tough experience — there’s no one-size-fits-all solution," says Rubin, who recently authored "Better Than Before," a new book based on this very subject. "[It's] because people try to change their habits in ways that aren’t right for them … like when a 'night person' tries to form the habit of getting up early to go running. That could work for a morning person, but it’s not going to work well for a night person."
That's not to say Rubin doesn't have any advice for breaking bad habits; she's got more than plenty. But in order for any of it to work, a person needs to know himself/herself well enough to determine which strategy will fit his/her personality.
"When we identify key aspects of our nature, we can tailor a habit to suit our particular idiosyncrasies," says Rubin, adding that most of the population fits into one of these four categories:
- Upholders: According to Rubin, Upholders "respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations." ("I do what others expect of me — and what I expect from myself.")
- Questioners: Naturally, Questioners question expectations. ("I do what I think is best, according to my judgment. I won’t do something that doesn’t make sense.")
- Obligers: This group likes to please, even at the expense of their own goals. ("I don’t like to let others down, but I often let myself down.")
- Rebels: Rebels tend to purposely ignore or defy expectations. ("I want to do what I want, in my own way. If you tell me to do it, I’m less likely to do it.")
"Once we know our tendency, we have a better idea of what habit-change strategy will work for us," explains Rubin, who offers up the following four examples:
• "Upholders do expecially well with the strategy of scheduling," says Rubin, mostly because its in their nature to fulfill the expectations they place upon themselves. So, for example, if an Upholder wanted to start going to bed earlier, they should literally pencil it into their to-do list, or set an alarm to ring every night before lights out.
• Questioners, Rubin says, don't take anything at face value, and they make up their minds based on their own findings. So when it comes to something like eating better or exercising, questioners are more likely to incorporate a practice they truly believe in. In a case like this, Rubin says a Questioner should harness his/her "love of information" (e.g., search for scientific studies on dieting, or research more efficient weight-loss techniques) to help mold a healthy mindset, which will lead to better behaviors.
• Because Obligers don't like to disappoint, Rubin says they're best suited for a strategy that would place accountability on them if they didn't follow through. "Plan a run with a friend who will be annoyed if you don’t show up," suggests Rubin.
• Rebels, by their nature, are a little harder to nail down. Most Rebels have a strong sense of identity, which means they might consider a bad habit to be integral to their personality. For instance, take a Rebel who enjoys smoking — and has smoked for as long as he/she can remember — but knows it's probably time to stop. In order to help sort out any inner conflict, Rubin believes a Rebel should "tap into their Rebel values of desire, freedom and choice" to offer up a counter-argument for rebelling in the other direction. "'I don't want to be controlled by nicotine" [or] "I don't want to pour money into the pockets of big tobacco companies,'" Rubin suggests.
It's important to understand that no single strategy is guaranteed, and a person might have to try two or three before he/she finds one that delivers results. But when Upholders, Questioners, Obligers or Rebels work to understand themselves and identify their own tendencies, they'll have a much better chance of finding success.
Like Rubin says above, there's no "one-size-fits-all solution" that works for everybody — but there is a solition just waiting to work.