People often ask me, “Why do we struggle so hard to change our habits–why do we so often fail?”
There are a few reasons, but there’s one big one — a popular myth about habits that leads people astray. It makes them accuse themselves of being lazy, self-indulgent, and lacking in will-power. It causes them to fail.
What is this myth? It’s the myth that there’s a magic, one-size-fits-all solution for habit change.
You’re read the headline: “The habits that successful people follow each morning!” “Follow these 3 secret habits of millionaires! “The one habit you must follow if you want to get ahead!” “The five habits of all highly creative people!”
But here’s what I’ve discovered. And you know this, too — because it’s perfectly obvious from looking at the world around us.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. There’s no one “best” habit.
Or rather, there is a one-size-fits-all-solution, which is: Follow the habits that work for you, that help make you happier, healthier, and more productive.
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What works for you might be very different from what worked for your brother or Steve Jobs or Virginia Woolf.
Often, people make the case for adopting a particular habit by pointing to a renowned figure who practiced that habit, with great success. For instance…
- Maybe we should live a life of quiet predictability, like Charles Darwin. Or maybe we should indulge in boozy revelry, like Toulouse-Lautrec.
- Maybe we should wake up early, like Haruki Murakami. Or maybe we should work late into the night, like Tom Stoppard.
- Maybe it’s okay to procrastinate endlessly, like William James. Or maybe it’s better to work regular hours, like Anthony Trollope.
- Should we work in silence, like Gustav Mahler? Or amidst a bustle of activity, like Jane Austen?
- Maybe it’s helpful to drink a lot of alcohol, like Friedrich Schiller. Or a lot of coffee, like Kierkegaard.
- Are we better off producing work for many hours a day, like H. L. Mencken? Or maybe for just thirty minutes a day, like Gertrude Stein.
The sad fact is, there’s no magic formula, no one-size-fits-all solution—not for ourselves, and not for the people around us.
We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive and healthy by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.
In his fascinating book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, from which these examples are drawn, Mason Currey exhaustively examines the work habits of 161 writers, composers, artists, scientists, and philosophers.
These examples make one thing perfectly clear: while these brilliant people vary tremendously in the specific habits they follow, they all know very well what habits work for them, and they go to enormous lengths to maintain those habits.
This “one-size-fits-all” myth is dangerous, and it makes people feel terrible about themselves, because they think, “Well, you’re supposed to get exercise first thing in the day, and I tried to get up early and go for a run, and I totally couldn’t stick to it. See, I’m a lazy person with no will-power.” Or they think, “The secret is to indulge in moderation, and I’ve been trying to limit myself to one-half cup of ice-cream each night, but each night, I break down and eat the whole container. I’m such a loser.”
When I talk to people like this, I say, “No, that’s not true about you! You just haven’t set yourself up for success. There’s a way for you to change those habits, with much better results — because it’s tailored to you.”
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Now, I speak of this one-size-fits-all myth from first-hand knowledge, because for a long time, I believed in it, too.
I used to tell everyone that working slowly and steadily was the best way to produce creative work. Because that’s what works for me.
And I used to encourage everyone to get up early, to work in the morning.
Because that’s what works for me.
And I used to say that it was better to work in a reasonably quiet, calm, orderly environment. Because that’s what works for me.
And I used to say that it was better to give up sugar, cold turkey, and just never indulge. Because that’s what works for me.
But as I worked on Better Than Before, it became increasingly clear to me that the opposite habits work better for some people.
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- I’m a Marathoner, but some people are Sprinters.
- I’m a Lark, but some people are Owls.
- I’m a Simplicity-Lover, but some people are Abundance-Lovers.
- I’m an Abstainer, but some people are Moderators.
We have to think about ourselves. It’s helpful to ask, “When have I worked well in the past? What did my habits look like then – and how can I replicate them?” Maybe you work more creatively with a team – or by yourself. Maybe you need deadlines – or maybe you feel strangled by deadlines. Maybe you like working on several projects at once — or you prefer to focus on one project at a time.
With habits, as with happiness, the secret is to figure out ourselves. When we shape our habits to suit our own nature, our own interests, and our own values, we set ourselves up for success.
This is so important that in Better Than Before, the first two chapters focus on self-knowledge. Once you know yourself better, you can figure out how to use the other nineteen strategies more effectively — and with less frustration. It’s not that hard to change your habits–when you know what to do.
A version of this article originally appeared on Gretchen Rubin’s website.